Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 19 May 2013





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Psychological interpretation of Lanka’s history

New vistas on the early history of Sri Lanka
A Vijitha Yapa Publication
Author:Prof. Wijaya Dissanayake

“Historians generally prefer to draw a clear line between their field and the realm of fable.

Anthropologists and psychologists however do not dismiss legends and myths in the way our orthodox historians do and attempt to extract whatever useful information.”

That is to build a credible tale of what could have actually happened in the past, ”at least on a provisional hypothesis.”

The above passage culled from the text itself could be self-explanatory as regards the content of this book into which has been invested much intellectual concentration. There is nothing so mysterious as the dead past which is incredibly copious in content too.

To the task of historian falls the duty of sieving out its major landmarks and going on to record them. Supplementing the historian’s role are other peeps into this dead past as ruins of cities, inscriptional evidence and even legends handed down through generations.

The author has exerted himself with tremendous zeal to accumulate into a corpus all these, as regards the early history of Sri Lanka and that in a mere 200-page text. But wait, he skips the actual margins and the book covers vistas even beyond Lanka, yet hinging on the island’s tale. That way the radar encompasses far more than intended.

Not only to other regions does the author travel but also to other mental areas for, “history is a dynamic and complex process linked both to biological and environmental factors and to the past of human societies, having associations with culture, belief systems and other influences that fluctuate from one era to another”.

Historical abundance

Like to wade through all that? Read the book. Actually leaving aside the bias springing from the fact that it is our own Gods given country (Deiyo dunnu rata), it may be apt to remark that disproportionate to the island’s small size an amazing historical abundance of events has been orchestrated here. It could be due to the location of the island sited in mid-Indian ocean or the energy oozing from the main actors on the stage of Lankan history.

Always one notices a leaning towards a positive and benign acting by most of them. In Buddhism they saw a very benevolent force that could help rulers to maintain law and order and breed a morally sensitive populace. The traditions imbibed run to the present day in a majority of the population.

That the early history of the island is inextricably interwoven with the rise of Buddhism is manifest clearly and this historical matrix almost dominates a good part of the book. The author’s high erudition and professionalism prevents him from being emotional about it all and salient facts as regards the process are presented in a rather neutral way. However, myths and legends are given a prominent place, and never dismissed as fabrications.

Myths and legends

He goes out of his way to defend “Myths and Legends“ stating that they are not falsehoods but are forms of expression of ancient cultures which attempt to explain the arcane mysteries of nature in simple concepts. In short the dim antiquity comes alive via these myths and legends. While many a scholar of Lanka tends to scoff at these legends and myths, it is to the credit of the author that he does not share this disaparaging attitude. In fact he posits, in his introduction, “It is with the intention of improving our understanding of this legend based and incomplete early period of Lankan history and clarifying some obscure debatable issues that this study was undertaken”.

A laudable motive indeed especially considering the fact that the author now lives in self–exile in England! Dissanayake, while concentrating on the myths and legends does not depreciate the chronicles either which complement to build up a more balanced picture of the past.

Chapter 1 deals with the story of the peopling of the island in pre-historic times, the Yakkas, while it is followed in Chapter 2 by the entry of the Nagas, a more peaceful South Asian tribe. Chapter 3 peaks to the account of the major Peopling event in Lankan history, the entry of waves of migrants from the Gangetic civilisation of Northern India bringing over the urban Gangetic civilisation. With admirable professionalism the author superimposes historicity to events that follow, which have been translated almost into the realm of mythology by legends and even at times by chronicles.


Chapter 4 deals with a geographical and ethno-linguistic paradox as to how that the Sinhala language that descended from Middle Prakrit managed to survive the influence of a Darvidian speaking population inhabiting a large area in between.

Skipping a sequential order these chapters too that follow are of paramount importance in giving a psychological interpretation of Lanka’s early historical legends such as Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Maurya Empire’s report on the island, how the chronicles described foreign trade of the island, and under the umbrella or Chatra of Part 3 titled “Silk Road of the Indian Ocean “are very “palatable” titles.

The merchants from a Lost civilisation, a trade mission to the Roman Empire, visit of the Greek mariner, Kosmas 550 CE Wait. The reviewer forgot to mention the Walking Ape that struts at the earth right at the beginning.

He and she, strut out of Africa to finally people the whole world. Fact or fiction read the text. It is certainly a book worth reading spreading its orbit to such distant phenomena, profusely illustrated and carrying some very valuable maps.

The author ends it all up by this humble admission. “The conclusions arrived are tentative and provisional and at best they are probabilities that may need revision.” But yet the text provides delightful reading and is a writer’s fitting tribute to Mother Lanka, with her long and colourful and turbulent history. A history almost out of proportion to her small terrain.


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