Gananath Obeyesekere: Stories and Histories

Gananath Obeyesekere: Stories and Histories


Source : island

Book Review by. Robert Sidharthan Perinbanayagam, Professor, (Emeritus) Dept. of Sociology, Hunter College of the City University of New York


 “History is more or less bunk” once opined the industrialist Henry Ford, no doubt wanting people to disregard the past and focus on the future. However people keep writing histories and talking histories and using histories for one political purpose or another. Sri Lanka is no exception and our everyday politics is drenched with historical allusions.

Yet one can ask,” What is history?” or; “What is passed off as history?” Indisputably what is passed off as history are narratives or stories, assembled by an author who uses selected events from the past to the extent that they are available in one form or another, to create a narrative – or a story—about what is presumed to be the past of a country or a nation, or even an individual, for that matter. Insofar as the narratives that are passed off as history are based on selections made by an author they are likely to be idiosyncratic ones and can be either reflections of reality and can also be deflections of reality.

Kenneth Burke, philosopher of language and its use uses put the conundrum this way: Men seek for vocabularies that will be serviceable reflections of reality. To this end, they must function as a deflection of reality. With such conditions in mind, how might one best proceed to select a vocabulary (a perspective, a systematically interrelated terminology) that might lay claim to be central for the discussion of human affairs and human relationships, and for the placement of cultural forms? In other words, all narratives, insofar as they are narratives are undertaken by one agent or another, and are both selections of reality and as a consequence deflections of reality. For example, it is possible, in writing the history of the United States, to underplay the role of slavery in its economic well being in the early years] or to slight the massacres and dispossession of the native Americans — thereby deflecting reality.

Stories and Histories

In this work – a companion piece to his In Search of the Hunter, Obeyesekere examines, not so much the ‘history’ of Sri Lanka of which there are many, but how these works select the material they use as evidence and what they leave out. In so far as this is the case, what these historians produce are artfully constructed narratives or stories that deflect reality. When such deflections are discovered, others can come to correct them but there is no guarantee that they will not be deflections too. This is the inherent pathos in creating narratives: they can be challenged and repudiated by others on the one hand or can also be enriched by later writers. Obeyesekere, in this work, as well as his other work on the Vaddas, does both: he challenges some of the extant versions of history as well as enriches it substantially.

He describes his aim in this work as follows: “In this work I emphasize, as in my other writings, the tentativeness of historical knowledge. History in my thinking, as with some of my professional colleagues, is something in the making and it was Max Weber who with great insight mentioned the tentativeness of historical knowledge and hence its vulnerability.” Obeyesekere then goes on to claim rightly, that some purported historical writings are really myths or stories concocted for given political purposes. He writes: “For example, in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, combatants in ethnic and civil wars have reiterated the idea of “homelands” and scholars and historians on opposed sides of the divide step into the breach and justify the idea of homelands through skewed historical and archeological research. The most unconscionable histories were written during the Nazi regime, and they too had the guise of empirical historiography.

There is nothing to prevent scholars becoming card-carrying members of violent movements or fanatic nationalists employing modern methods of historical and ethnographic writing to justify their respective political stances.” These considerations lead him to argue: “I am critical of the way modern historians have dealt with Sri Lanka’ pasts. I will selectively deal with earlier periods of our history to elucidate some of the problems that beset us in our study of Sri Lankan classical texts such as the Mahāvaṃsas that provide us with a continuous history from the very founding of the nation to the reign of the last king of Kandy.” In Stories and Histories, Obeyesekere continues with his radical reconstruction of the early history of Sri Lanka by relying on folk records. These records are Bandaravaliya— the genealogical records of certain families— vittipot –records of given contemporary events and kadaimpot – notes on the boundaries of the provinces. These documents are clearly a rich source of reliable data. Obeyesekere presents his material in segments that he entitles as numbered “books”. I too will write my comments with his scheme. It is however not possible to present the extremely detailed material that one can find in these chapters so I will select certain significant elements. Will this constitute my deflections of reality? I hope not.

Book I –

Topographies of Sri Lanka: Boundary Books: Kadaim pot —After some introductory comments about the importance of these folk documents for reconstructing the early history of the island, Obeyesekere selects two for further commentary: They are the Lankaādvipaye Kaḍaim pota (“The boundary book of the Island] of Sri Lanka”) and Tri Sinhale Kaḍaim Pota. The districts are contained within the three larger political divisions of the country, namely Maya-rata, Ruhunu-rata and Pihiti-rata, the last identified with the ancient Raja-rata, “the country of the kings” with its capital in Anuradhapura and later in Polonnaruwa. Studying these documents, he unearths a great deal of detail about the peopling of the land as well as the governance of the relevant kingdom and its relationship to India. These works are ostensibly about boundaries but they are really about how the boundaries of given provinces were constituted and about the people who lived in them. It turns out it was a mixed population — a dominant Sinhala one with an admixture of migrants from the Chola and Pandya provinces of what is now called Tamil Nadu; from the Chera provinces now called Kerala, Andra Pradesh and the Vaddas.

Book 2 .

Composition of the Event Books: -Vitti pots: Immigration Myths and the story of the Malalas: Here, Obeyesekere deals with a variety of issues by getting his material from vitti pot which are records of events that occurred in given territories. He takes data from these texts and brings them into conversation with other documents such as the more official ones and draws various conclusions. In some cases there seem to be some congruence between these texts and in others there is not. Nevertheless, these documents provide interesting dialectically related material from which powerful conclusions can be drawn

When the Bodhi tree was brought to the island by Mahinda and Sanghamita, they were accompanied by a group called the “Malalas”. “Since that time, Obeyesekere observes “they have lived in Sri Lanka”. Who were these Malalas?

It is in answering this question that Obeyesekere exposes the main thesis of his work: the tentativeness of conclusions about historical events and the conundrums involved in resolving them. Who then were the Malalas and where have they gone?

Obeyesekere writes: “The ‘Tamilness’ of the Malalas is never explicitly stated even in the prose texts and indeed cannot be stated. The reasons are clear enough because the Malalas, according to their myth of origins came with the Bodhi tree and therefore must come from the area of the Bodhimandala, what we would now know as Buddhagaya in the state of Bihar.

Yet it is also clear from the prose text that the Malalas fought with the Maravas or Maravaras who were in Ramnad way down in the South of India, but they are Buddhists which of course fits in nicely with their historical claims. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the Malalas – are they Tamils or are they not – remain, and are intrinsic to the Malala personae. Thus, when they land in Sri Lanka they are confronted with the Vädda chief who asks them in the verse text, “O Damilas what is the language you speak?” Which is an oxymoron because if one in a Damila one must speak Tamil! To make sense of this statement, the term Damila is used by the Vädda chief as a generic term for South Indian speakers and hence it would make sense for them to figure out the actual language spoken by the Damila- Malalas which of course could be a Kerala language. Kerala in Sinhala ideation is often known as Malala! If that is one example of the conundrum that Obeyesekera examines, here is another: Who are the Tamils who are often mentioned in these folk stories?

Here is Obeyesekere’s discussion: “Demala is on the one hand an exclusionary sign which is also another way of indicating their alien-ness; but when the demalas come to the aid of the Sinhala king as in the Ayothipattalama prose episode the Tamils are the good guys. This means that although the term demala has pejorative connotations it occasionally can have positive meaning. In these cases, it seems that the demala sign hangs on the Sinhala head! This is expectable because, historically speaking, many Sinhalas were erstwhile demalas. For the most part the exclusionary demala sign is also apparent in our historical chronicles, both Pali and Sinhala. That is, when invaders from South India are mentioned in derogatory fashion they are most often mentioned as demala or damila. But we will show in our discussion of these chronicles that when South Indians are referred to by their place of origin, especially Pandu (Pandya) or Soli (Chola) or even Kalinga there is much more ambiguity. Sometimes these Pandyans and Cholas are also demala but at other times they can be referred to without the demala sign attached to them. Thus, one of the famous Sinhala chiefs in the Kotte period was Vidiye Bandara whose mother had married a man from Soli or Chola. In which case this man could be considered a demala from Jaffna although never referred to as such; and many good Sri Lankan kings had the term Pandu or Soli attached to them. Clearly then the peopling of Sri Lanka was accomplished by agents from many parts of the sub-continent though the contribution from the Tamil country and the Kerala country was very significant as well.”

This process of assimilation of various groups into the Sinhala polity was also, Obeyesekere shows, dramatized in various rituals where these symbolic processes of inclusion and exclusion abound even today in South and West Sri Lanka.

Book 3

Small Kingdoms of Sri Lanka: Sitavaka and Kotte In this chapter once again Obeyesekere brings in to the conversation the various folk documents with other official accounts about events in Sitavaka and Kotte kingdoms.

Book 4

Brahmins in the Sinhala Varna Scheme: The Coming of the Brahmins in the Dambadeniya Period: Here Obeyesekere, once again, inter-relating a variety of texts to each other, examines the coming of the Brahmins to the island. They, it turns out were more or less indispensable in managing certain rituals in the various courts as well as in managing various temples that were scattered in the kingdom. The populace was mainly Buddhist of course but worshiping the Buddha-associated Hindu god Vishnu and the Kataragama god Skanda or Kandasami was also part of the religious beliefs of the people — playing no doubt a version of Pascal’s wager! So, there were devales that needed anointed priests and they came. They were welcomed by the king as well as the people .

Book 5.

Colonization Myths:Trade Economic Models and the Political Order – Obeyesekere demonstrates the intricate economic relations that Sri Lanka had with various countries and the important part its ports played in assisting these relations. He cites work by Kenneth McPherson as follows:

“In the early centuries of the present era the most active South Asian ports were located in southern India and Sri Lanka: a host of small ports along the Malabar and Coromandel coasts as well as the great Sri Lankan port of Mantai which flourished until it was abandoned in the 11th century after devastating wars between Sri Lanka and South Indian invaders.”

In the sphere of religion and culture too Obeyesekere makes an important point: “The Chola (Sinhala Soli) conquest of the Island has oft-times been unfairly castigated as contributing to the decline of Anuradhapura. It was certainly the case that the Cholas moved their capital to Polonnaruva, but this did not result in the abandonment of Anuradhapura and its great hydraulic networks. The Chola rulers were familiar with these systems of irrigation in their own home territories and surely knew the importance of maintaining them. As Nilakanta Sastri rightly mentions the Chola administration of Sri Lanka, especially the northern Rajarata, was not an oppressive one, no more than it was in South India itself. As far as Buddhism was concerned it is likely that the Cholas did not interfere with the dominant religion because that again was not part of Chola policy here or elsewhere… We will demonstrate later that even after the liberation of the Island by Vijayabahu I, Chola relations with Sri Lanka were cordial.”

Book 6 :

The Significance of the Intergnum in Sinhala Histories: Rajavaliya and other related texts: Obeyesekere examines here, what he calls ‘Various documents called Rajavaliyas’ and relates them to others such Pujavalias and the Mahavamsa. He notes both the conjunctions among them as well as the contradictions and proposes some way of resolving them. The Portuguese occupation Obeyesekere observes resulted in another profound social change. Here it is in his words:

“Portuguese and Catholics welcomed many of the so-called inferior castes, especially the Karava (karā), the Salagama (hāli) and the Durava (durā), all of whom in later times populated much of the low country coastal region and became leading entrepreneurs and pioneers of industry, intellectuals, political leaders and civil servants from the 19th century onwards. Some of them, especially the Salagama, became Buddhists but all of them, as the Rājāvaliya points out, upset the traditional order and in doing so, they challenged the hegemony and numerical dominance of the Goyigama, something that the Rājāvaliya do not point out!”


Mahavmsa Histories and Narrative Fiction: Obeyesekere delves now into the Mahavamsa and relates it to various other documents. In undertaking this exercise he is able on the one hand to support some of the Mahavamsa’s version of events, challenge some others, and add important details to the narrative of the island’s story.

Book 8:

Problematics of History: Buddhist Ideals and practical reality: The Parricide as Hero: The case of Rajasinghe: In this chapter Obeyesekere engages with the account in the Mahavamsa about Rajasinghe I and challenges that version.


This work by Gananath Obeyesekere is truly a masterly exercise in the hermeneutics of important Sri Lankan texts, some of them widely known and others rather obscure. They are not just hermeneutic exercises but exemplary critical hermeneutics. He examines the various texts at his disposal with meticulous attention to details, pointing out their strengths and weakness, their plausibility and contradictions, and then drawing his own interpretations and conclusions. While doing this he also challenges popularly held stories about events from the island’s past and eviscerates stereotypes about the Sinhalese people and the Tamils and Muslims and the relations they had with each other.

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