As we saw in Part-1, the earliest Srilankan Tamils moved out of India 2,200 years back. Why is India entangled in their affairs now? I was struggling to come up with a germane reason. Tell me, how much longer should we consider these people Indian?
It is amazing that not a single politician or rabble-rousing movie star has asked this pertinent question: Who are the Sinhalas? They couldn’t have spontaneously sprung from ether, right?
Please hop into a time-machine with me, as we travel to the Indian subcontinent, after the early Iron Age. Around 1000 BC, iron age settlements appeared suddenly in Srilanka – roughly 200 years after the Aryans inhabited the Gangetic plains in India. It seems reasonable to assume that people from nearby India introduced it to the island.
I’m about to plunge you into the ice-cold, murky depths of history. But first, let me regale you with a story.
Back to Mahavamsa
I briefly mentioned the Pali chronicle “Mahavamsa” in Part-1. The narrative starts at 6th Century BC with a bang with Prince Vijaya landing near Mannar in Srilanka with 700 followers.
Prince Vijaya’s birth is steeped in legend. The King of Vanga (Bengal) married the Queen of Kalinga (Orissa). In due course of time, the queen gave birth to a daughter, Suppa Devi. When the young princess became a lovely maiden, she was raped by a lion. If that seems outlandish, a more likely explanation could be – she was abducted & raped by a man named Sinha (which means “Lion” in Sanskrit).
The unlikely pair begot a son, Sinha Bahu & a daughter, Sinha Sivali. The 3 of them lived unhappily with the lion, in a cave. The lion kept the mouth of the cave closed, with a huge boulder. One fine day, Sinha Bahu killed his father, the lion & liberated his mother & sister. After their escape, Sinha Bahu married his sister. Pause your protracted groaning, there’s more. Prince Vijaya is the product of their, ah, union.
Vijaya hung out with a rather unsavory coterie. His gang indulged in such evil & violent deeds, that the citizens started clamoring for his head. His father, the King, was forced to exile him to a distant land – but only after shaving half of his head to humiliate him. And thus, Vijaya landed in Srilanka with his band of mischief makers.
His arrival is dated around Gautama Buddha’s death, but that is probably an insertion by the monks, to add divine significance to the arrival of a wayward prince. Srilanka was already populated by terrible Yakkas (Yakshas in Sanskrit, loosely translated, Demons in English). They sent their representative Yakkini Kuveni, a scary female, to finish off the interlopers. Big mistake. Young Kuveni fell head over heels in love with the dashing prince & betrayed her people.
With her help, Vijaya & his followers victoriously slew as many Yakkas as they could find. And the prince became the King of Srilanka. But now, the uncivilized Yakkini Kuveni wasn’t good enough for him. He had his heart set on marrying a fair damsel of royal descent – the comely Pandya princess from Madurai, to be precise. So, he promptly dumped Kuveni – she was simply beneath his station in life.
Vijaya lived happily ever after with his blue-blooded wife. As for the heart-broken Kuveni, she threw herself off a cliff & died. Rape, Incest, Patricide, Exile, Violence, Abandoning, Traitors – not a Moral Science lesson, but the stuff that legends are made of. And as with all legends, it isn’t entirely a figment of imagination.
Before we get any further, we should understand this: Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language, which means it is an Indic language based on Sanskrit. Ancient Buddhist canons are written in Pali, an archaic language that is not spoken. Spoken Sinhala is a watered down version of Pali, with many loan words from Tamil & Portuguese.
What is the origin of Pali then? Let’s weave through the tangled web of centuries & arrive at the dawn of Buddhism & Jainism. Sanskrit was the language of the Priests & its purity was guarded jealously. Most of the people spoke a vernacular based on Sanskrit – they called it “Prakrit”. Such a lowly language was deemed unfit for Kings & Priests, of course.
India being a large country, there were 3 main regional dialects of Prakrit – Maharashtri (South West), Sauraseni (West) & Magadhi (East). And beyond the confines of India, in Afghanistan, a 4th dialect, Gandhari, was spoken. If there were 4 main dialects, what is “Standard Prakrit”? Scholars opine that it was Ardha Magadhi, the language used by Emperor Ashoka in all his edicts & the language used by many Jain & Buddhist canons.
Modern Indic languages trace their ancestry to 1 of these Prakrits. Thus, Bengali & Oriya to name a few, rose from Magadhi. Hindi, Gujarati & Punjabi evolved from Sauraseni. Why do we need to know all this? Because, Pali is very similar to Ardha Magadhi. Similar or same. This is not surprising, since Ardha Magadhi was the language of choice for Buddhist monks in India.
If the legend of Vijaya is true, the ancestors of modern Sinhalas came from Bengal & Orissa. So, we can expect Sinhala to be a daughter of Magadhi. Interestingly enough, this is only partly correct. A close analysis of Sinhala is disconcerting: For it has 2 substratum Prakrits: Eastern. And Western.
Interpreting the Evidence
The received wisdom in Srilanka is that, the Sinhalas are the descendants of settlers from North India, notably Orissa & Bengal. In that sense, their conflict with the Srilankan Tamils mirrors the 20th century tussle between North Indians & South Indians.
According to Mahavamsa, Sinha Bahu – the father of Prince Vijaya – established a city called “Sinhapura” in Kalinga. There is a strong likelihood that this city was in fact located – not in Orissa – but in North West Punjab, near Upper Indus, plumb in the middle of the ancient Gandhara territory. Yet another Sinhapura is in Kathiawar in Gujarat.
Historic proofs show that Indo-Aryan speaking Kambojas moved from their lands in the Upper Indus to modern Gujarat. They then migrated to Srilanka by sea. Prince Vijaya’s legend may be true, but only if we assume he moved from Western India. As if to muddy the water some more, scholars think that Sinhapura may be a city in Kalinga.
Nevertheless, Indo-Aryans from Gujarat moved to Srilanka in a wave. Since the Sinhala royalty married the scions of the Kalinga kingdom on a regular basis, people migrated aplenty from Orissa. This accounts for the the Eastern & Western substrates in Sinhala.
Incidentally, Sinhala is written in the Brahmi script. The influence of the Kadamba script, from which Kannada & Telugu scripts were derived, is also discernible. Oriya, on the other hand, is based on the closely related Kalinga script.
But, is that the complete picture? How accurate is the received wisdom of the Sinhalas? Is the ethnic strife in Srilanka, a rehash of the age-old Aryan – Dravidian conflict? That is the subject of another post.
While Mahavamsa may include legends, it seems fairly certain that Indo-Aryans migrated to Srilanka during the Iron Age. Srilanka was already inhabited by – shall we say aborigines, to keep things simple? The migrants mixed with the locals. Mannar & Anuradhapura were part of a busy trade route, so many waves of immigrants, primarily from India, would have made Srilanka their home.
The Sinhala royal family preferred to marry the scions of the Kalingas & the Pandyas. This would have bolstered bi-lateral trade. People move en masse for trade & religion, not necessarily during invasions. Such movement of people is usually in both directions – as in, Srilankans would have moved to India in waves too, over the centuries.
Sinhalas are an Indo-Aryan speaking people, that use an Indian script, follow Buddhism – an Indian religion, embrace the insidious caste system & live in a land that is 15 miles from India’s Eastern seaboard. Their ancestors moved from India in waves over several centuries, to colonize Srilanka. And I haven’t even started talking about their art forms, food & attire. If Srilankan Tamils are “People of Indian Origin” – What do you call Sinhalas then, chopped liver?
My aim is not to spread Pan-Indian Nationalism & erase Srilanka’s national pride. For, it is an unusual culture. An Indo-Aryan speaking country, right next to the threatening bulk of Dravidian speaking South India. A Buddhist country, situated right next to a vast & vociferous Hindu country. Amidst it all, they’ve developed & fostered a unique identity all their own.
I’m merely asking Indians to shed their paranoia & think about our neighbors the Sinhalas, with whom we share our heritage. Perhaps then, we’ll start seeing them for what they are – a nation ravaged by civil war & terrorism, whose citizens simply want to lead a normal life.
Check out my next post on the Real History of Srilanka – I’ll post it after a few days.