Writing History and Myth: a comment

I refer to the article by Shanie under the above named caption, published in your issue of 19th April, 2008. I wish to comment on two points thereof.

First point On the Mahavamsa, the writer says, "the Mahavamsa is an invaluable source for the reconstruction of our ancient history. It was compiled by Bhikku Mahanama of the Mahavihara tradition sometime during or after sixth century AD and chronicles our story during the millennium following the legendary arrival of Vijaya. It was written therefore based on oral tradition and for the serene joy and emotion of the pious."

My comments are on the second sentence in that para, which says, "It was therefore based on oral tradition." Since the writer makes no mention of other sources, a reader would understand it to mean the only source for Mahanama to compile the Mahavamsa was oral tradition. It is erroneous, and it’s that point I wish to clarify.

Mahanama himself in the opening verse of the Mahavamsa says, ‘Having made obeisance to the Sambuddha, the pure sprung of a pure race, I will recite the Mahavamsa, of varied content and lacking nothing. That (Mahavamsa) which was compiled by the ancient (sages) was here too long drawn out and here too closely knit; and contained many repetitions. Attend ye now to this (Mahavamsa) that is free from such faults, easy to understand and remember arousing serene joy and emotion and handed down (to us) by tradition. - [Geiger’s English translation of the Mahavamsa, 1912, 1950]

Thus Mahanama himself had said that he had based his work on an earlier compilation handed down by tradition. That compilation/tradition is now thought to be the Atthakatha Mahavamsa.

Without going into details on that point, I will reproduce here, the excellent diagarammatic representation of the works which preceded the Mahavamsa as shown by Ananda W P Guruge in his translation and editing of the Mahavamsa (1989). That diagram shows, as he says, the evolution of the chronicle from the early days, and it certainly facilitates easy comprehension. Thus it would be seen that the Mahanama had based his compilation on earlier works, and oral tradition would have been just one source for his compilation of the Mahavamsa.

For those who would wish to read more on the earlier works the following general accounts are available: Geiger’s Introduction to the Mahavamsa (1912,1950), University of Ceylon History of Ceylon, Vol I, Part I, (1959) Anuradhapura Yugaya (in Sinhala) edited by Amaradasa Liyanagamage and Ranaweera [RALH] Gunawardena, (1961, 1965, 1987) and Guruge’s Introduction itself to his publication (1989).

Second point

The para on ethninic identities in the aforementioned article has that H. L. Seneviratne pointed out that many of the Kandyan chieftains signed the 1915 (sic) Convention in Tamiil. However, some are of opinion that the non-Sinhala characters are in grantha. But since I am unable to identify the characters which are said to be in Tamil or in grantha, I am reproducing here the signatory page from the Governor’s copy of the signed Convention, which is in the safe custody of the National Archives in Colombo. As per documentation available at the National Archives the Convention was signed in two copies, and what is at the Archives, as said above, is the Governor’s copy.

Since the names of the signatories are not widely known, I will give here below the names in the order they appear in the signatory page of the Convention. Those who are able to read Tamil or grantha characters will be able to see the script used by some of the signatories.

Ehelepola signed in line with that of the Governor. Robert Brownrigg. The Governor’s signature is on the left, and that of Ehelepola is on the right. The names and signatures of the other chieftains as they appear in the Convention one below the other are as follows:

Molligoda 1st Adikaram & Disave of the 7 Korles

Pilima Talawwe 2nd Adikaram & Disave of Saffragam

Pilima Talawwe, Disave of the 4 Korles

Monaravila, Disave of Uwa

Ratwatte, Disave of Matale

Molligoda, Disave of 3 Korles

Dulleywe, Disawe of Walapane

Millewa, Disawe of Wellassa and Bintenne

Galagama, Disawe of Tamankada

Galagoda, Disawe of Nuwara Kalawiya

It is also to be noted that the Convention was only proclaimed on the 2nd of March, 1815, it was not signed on that day The two copies of the Convention were signed by the Governor and some of the chieftains, i.e. except three of them, on the 10th; the three who did not sign on the 10th, namely, Pilima Talawwe, Disave of the 3 Korles, Galagoda, Disave of Nuwara Kalaviya and Ehelepola Adikar, signed only on the 18th. [vide Gazette No.704 of 15th March 1815, and D’oyly’s Diary]

It may also be noted that the Kandyan court would have been under considerable influence of the numerous relatives of the Nayakkar kings. The latter sat on the Kandyan throne from 1739 to 1815, i.e. for a period of 76 years. That the Tamil language would also have been used in the court during that period is to be expected, and if some of the chieftains signed the Convention in Tamil, as said in the referred to article, and if it is so deciphered from the reproduced signatory page of the Convention, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

By clause 2 of the Convention, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha was deposed and by clause 3 all his relatives in the ascending, descending and collateral lines were expelled from the Kandyan provinces. Thus, 53 relatives of the king had affixed their signatures, I believe in Tamil, to the document in where they swear not to enter the Kandyan provinces in the future. That document shows the number of king’s relatives who would have been in and around the Kandyan court, and could have had influence in court activities; hence the use of the Tamil language too. A copy of the signed document is on exhibit at the National Archives.

I do not know what H. L. Seneviratne would have imputed when he had said that many had signed in Tamil: hence, I would not comment on it. However, let me say, to my knowledge, the late Kapila Wimaladharma compiled genealogies of very many Kandyan families, and it maybe that he had compiled the genealogies of the signatories to the Kandyan Convention too. I do not know whether those genealogical tables are available with his family residing in Kandy: anyone interested could find out that valuable information.

Regarding the discovery of the Governor’s copy of the signed Convention at our National Arches, readers are referred to The Sri Lanka Archives, Vol.1, No.1, 1983.

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