Social Construction and Deconstruction of a 'Theocracy'

By Goonatilake, Susantha | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Social Construction and Deconstruction of a 'Theocracy'


Goonatilake, Susantha, Antiquity


Archaeology aims at imagining past societies, using physical data together with, if available, historical documentation. Bur this imaginative process is bound by factors widely discussed in social epistemology, including unequal social relations among researchers. Such unequal geopolitics in knowledge has been explored by the present author and others (Goonatilake 1982, 1984, 1999, 2001; Clough 2001).

The present exercise aims to investigate and question the social and intellectual context in which Anuradhapura, the first capital in Sri Lanka, has been interpreted as belonging to a 'theocracy' (Coningham et al. 2007). Prehistoric archaeology has dated the site to around the ninth century BC at which time it was one of the largest cities in South Asia. A continuous set of chronicles, authenticated by physical remains, document the continuation of the city from at least the fourth/third century BC up to the eleventh century AD, when it was sacked by south Indian invaders. The written evidence includes Sinhalese chronicles (written in Pali), descriptions of the city by foreign travellers and a large number of inscriptions dating back to the third century BC. This documentation describes the secular roles of personages such as kings and ministers. Although there is of course a strong monastic presence, the monasteries were known as centres of both religious and secular learning. In spite of this, Coningham et al. argue, mainly from archaeological evidence, that Anuradhapura was a 'theocracy', a heavily loaded word with connotations that are inappropriate for Anuradhapura.

The theocracy thesis of Coningham

Anuradhapura was the Sri Lankan capital for 1500 years. It featured monasteries and lakes and attracted merchants engaged in the Indian Ocean trade. Coningham excavated in the city for a number of years, noting a 'huge volume' of exotic and imported material found within the city, giving an 'extremely rich artefactual sequence' which allowed the development of Indian Ocean networks of trade from early times to Anuradhapura's abandonment in the eleventh century (Coningham et al. 2007: 703).

In 2003 he turned his attention to Anuradhapura's hinterland, mapping sites that appeared on the surface. As a result of the first three seasons, he advances 'a number of working hypotheses' about the relationship between the town and the rural settlements that surrounded it (p. 713). He proposes a major administrative role for the monasteries, and interpreted them as belonging to a self-regulating hierarchy (p. 717). He finds analogies in the hydraulic and irrigation systems with Khmer polities, and in the distribution and size of the stupas (commemorative monuments) with the Maya pyramids (p. 716). Citing only a Western authority he states that 'most South Asian Early Historic states are considered to be almost theocratic in their political and economic structure' (p. 714-5). This no doubt encouraged him to designate the Anuradhapura hinterland as functioning as a 'theocratic landscape' for the majority of the period under analysis (i.e. 500 BC to AD 1000) (p. 717).

Coningham does attempt to compare and contrast his findings with the written record. He mentions the existence of a corpus of inscriptions dating from the third century BC to the first century AD which describe a large number of officials within the kingdom. He notes that records of donations in temples include those with titles of army commander, treasurer, minister, administrator, chief, village headman, and head of a household. He finds evidence of metalworkers and stonemasons indirectly indicating the existence of social groups around these activities. He also notes a tax regime and references to revenue officers supporting the state administration. Revenues went both to the secular system and to the sangha--the Buddhist monks' institution. He also makes theoretical recourse to the Indian text, Arthasastra of Kautiliya (originally assigned to around the fourth century BC, but probably in its current text dated to the second to fourth centuries AD [Mabbett 1964; Trautmann 1971: 10]) to describe what he claims is a template of South Asian cities which gives different hierarchies of an ideal kingdom, concluding that the categories of sites he defines in the hinterland do not correspond with the contemporary settlement hierarchy advocated in the Arthasastra.

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