The Vijayan Colonization and the Archaeology of Identity in Sri Lanka

By Coningham, Robin; Lewer, Nick | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Vijayan Colonization and the Archaeology of Identity in Sri Lanka


Coningham, Robin, Lewer, Nick, Antiquity


In my tours throughout the interior, I found ancient monuments, apparently defying decay, of which no one could tell the date or the founder; and temples and cities in ruins, whose destroyers were equally unknown.

SIR JAMES EMERSON TENNANT (1859: xxv).

Introduction

There are competing, yet interlinked, identities in Sri Lanka through which people `establish, maintain, and protect a sense of self-meaning, predictability, and purpose' (Northrup 1989: 55). These have become established over hundreds of years, and communities are attributed labels including Sinhala, Tamil, Vadda, Buddhist and Hindu (Coningham & Lewer 1999: 857). Sri Lanka is now experiencing what Azar (1990) has called a `protracted social conflict', wherein a section of the Tamil communities led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are engaged in a struggle to establish a Tamil homeland or Eelam. International links, especially with south India, have had important implications on the formation of identities in Sri Lanka. Here we will focus on a key influence which has deep archaeological and political implications, whose interpretation has informed and distorted the present understanding of the concept and evolution of identities. This theme, the Vijayan colonization of the island, illustrates the formulation of identities, especially as derived from a historical chronicle, the Mahavamsa, which was `rediscovered' by colonial officials in AD 1826 and has played a major role in determining the dynamics of this conflict.

The Mahavamsa

The Mahavamsa chronicles the island's past from its colonization by prince Vijaya in the 4th or 5th century BC to the reign of Mahasena (r. 274-301 AD). Composed by bhikkhus or Buddhist monks in the 4th-5th century AD, it was probably compiled from earlier sources (Bechert 1978: 3). The reliability of its later parts has been established by corroboration with inscriptions (Coningham 1995: 226) and it has been used to reconstruct the island's historical topography (Coningham 1999: 16). Despite its wide use, scholars are aware of its biases (Bechert 1978: 7) and Jeganathan (1995) has challenged links made by 19th-century scholars between archaeological sites and the chronicle.

The Mahavamsa records that Sri Lanka was uninhabited by humans until it was colonized by Vijaya and his followers in the middle of the 1st millennium BC (Mahavamsa 7.1-3). Heir to a kingdom in northern India, Vijaya had been exiled and sailed until he reached the island (Allchin 1990: 169). Once there, he killed many Yakkhas or `demonic inhabitants', but had two children by the yakkhini Kuvanna (Mahavamsa 7.36) and founded six cities, including Anuradhapura in the northern plains or Rajarata (FIGURE 1). On account of his descent from a lion, Vijaya and his followers called themselves Sinhala or `people of the lion' (Mahavamsa 7.42-45). He spurned Kuvanna for an Indian princess, and his children with the former went into the jungle and created the Pulinda people (Mahavamsa 7.68). It is only following the conversion of the Sinhalese to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC that the first Tamils are recorded (Mahavamsa 21.10-14). Thus, by chapter 21, the island's three pre-European communities are identified in order of arrival, the Sinhalese, the Pulinda and the Tamils.

The Vijaya colonization: a colonial framework

The first Europeans landed in AD 1505 and encountered three independent centres, the kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy (De Silva 1981: 89). The Portuguese began a process of commerce and conquest and absorbed Jaffnapatam in AD 1620 and Kotte in 1697, but were unable to subdue Kandy (De Silva 1981: 114-17). They were replaced by the Dutch, who tightened control of the coastal plains and isolated Kandy in the hill-country. The Dutch were expelled by the British in AD 1796, who defeated Kandy in AD 1815. Thus began a period of colonial rule which ended with independence in AD 1948.

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