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Sri Lanka in the Long Early Modern Period: Its Place in a Comparative Theory of Second

Millennium Eurasian History

Author(s): Alan Strathern
Source: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Jul., 2009), pp. 815-869
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Modem Asian Studies 43, 4 (2009) pp. 815-869. 2008 Cambridge University Press
doi: 1 0. 1 0 1 7/S0026749X07003447
First published online 9 October 2008

Sri Lanka in the Long Early Modern Period:

Its Place in a Comparative Theory of Second

Millennium Eurasian History


Clare Hall, Herschel Road, Cambridge, CB3 AL

Email: as

This paper explores how Sri Lanka might fit into Victor Lieberman's theory
of Eurasian history. Lieberman's work to date has focused on the 'protected
rimlands' which he sees as sharing the same historical path from a milieu of
warring little kingdoms to increasingly large, solid states. But what happens in
a land, such as Sri Lanka, which can be considered 'protected' before 1500, and
'unprotected' thereafter? Political integration and boundaries are first discussed,

followed by ethnic and historical awareness before 1500. The third section
sketches the chronological development of Buddhism before 1500, while the
fourth considers the impact of the European interruption, and the fifth briefly
looks at the results for 1600-1800. Along the way, some problems with applying
the notion of 'early modernity' to Sri Lanka are disclosed.

Sri Lanka has tended to remain isolated from projects of comparative

history.1 If it is physically separated from the subcontinent only by
the Palk Strait, the religion of its Sinhalese inhabitants and its recent
history outside British India have displaced it from models of South

Asian history.2 On the other hand, while it has obvious cultural

affinities with Southeast Asia, it is literally displaced by its physical
remoteness from attempts to define and theorise that region. It is
only the conspicuous absence of such comparative reflections that can
justify an exploratory and provisional paper such as this.3 It is intended
1 I am very grateful to Victor Lieberman, John Rogers, Michael Roberts, John Holt
and Jonathan Walters for reading and commenting on versions of this essay.
2 Encouraging recent examples locating Sri Lanka within a South Asian perspective

include Holt 2004, Rogers 2004^.

This paper should be seen as opening up areas of discussion rather than providing

decisive conclusions to them.


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as an initial advertisement of Lankan history for theoreticians - or a

pre-digestion of a broader theory for the consumption of Lankanists and is presented in the hope that other scholars will use their expertise
to revise, challenge and improve upon what is essayed here. The bulk
of this paper concerns the pre-1600 period, and is rather more vague

on developments after the European interruption. It focuses on the

Sinhalese kingdoms and leaves to one side the history of the Tamil
kingdom in the far north of the island.

The notion of an Asian 'early modernity' is rapidly gaining

acceptance, but the particular theory of early modernity that I

shall be focussing on here explodes the boundaries of Asia for a
Eurasian framework and restlessly exceeds the broadest limits of
early modernity itself, peeling back for a vision of 800-1830: this
is the vision presented by Victor Lieberman. There are other ways
to approach early modernity, of course. One immediately thinks of
Anthony Reid's well-known characterisation of Southeast Asia 14501680 as an Age of Commerce, or of the 'connected histories' pursued
in Asia by Sanjay Subrahmanyam for example.4 The latter sets out
to illuminate movements of ideas, people, technologies, goods and
political practices that could bring the same conjunctural realities
to apparently separate parts of the world. We shall touch on these
movements from time to time in this essay, particularly when they
intrude upon us rudely in the shape of the European interruption.
But much more could be done in this vein.5 One could consider

how South Indian personnel influenced Rajasinha I's (1581-1593)

vision of kingship, or how consciousness of Southeast Asian courts
shaped that of Rajasinha II (1635-1687) - not to mention whether
4 Reid 1988-1993, 1993. Reid's approach emphasises 'external' factors more than
Lieberman's, principally the massive growth in foreign trade precipitated by the rise

of maritime Chinese, Muslim and European merchants. See Subrahamanyam 1988,

1997, 1998, 2005a and 2005&. 'Connected history' is one of a family of terms such

as integrative history, transfer studies and transnational history, for which see Bayly

et al. 2006.

5 One example: Subrahmanyam 1997: 758, briefly refers to the circulation of

Buddhist texts, relics and practices of monastic reform between Lanka and Southeast

Asia, for which see also Blackburn 2001; Reid 1988-93: ii. 194-196; Godakumbura
1966; Raymond i995;Andaya 1999: i94;Sirisena 1978. Two examples worth further
exploration: first, the attempts by the Toungoo king, King Bayinnaug of Burma (r.
1551-1581) to seek the tooth relic from Kotte and Kandy (see Couto 1993: 108, 199,
211-4, 244-250). Second, consciousness of the origins of the Theravada tradition in
Sri Lanka are reflected in the widespread notion in Siam and Burma at this time that

Buddha had come to them from Ceylon, see Conceio Flores 1995: 132; Kaempfer
1996: 64, 108.

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Portuguese and Dutch administrative systems influenced the internal

development of the Kandyan state.6 Other developments of great

interest today, such as the enhanced salience of religious and ethnic
identities, cannot be seen in isolation from the habits of thought
introduced by the Portuguese as well as their violent impact.7 The
pursuit of connectedness does not, however, amount to a theory in
the sense of an explanatory model; indeed, it may particularly suit
those with an aversion to the generalisations and abstraction such
modelling entails. It is rather an angling of the light onto chains of
cause-and-effect that have been cast into shadow by the projections of

national, imperial, civilizational and area studies historiographies; it

is a predisposition to see any given location of study as a cross-roads
rather than a town square.8
Lieberman's work, on the other hand, is comparative in the strict
sense, and presents a model that we can sit Lankan history alongside
or within.9 The theory is principally concerned with what Lieberman

refers to as the 'protected rimlands', namely northwestern and

northeastern Europe, Japan and mainland Southeast Asia, which he
sees as sharing the same historical path from a milieu of warring
little kingdoms to increasingly large, solid and well-defined states.
In Braudellian fashion geography is the root here: states in other
Eurasian areas, such as India, which were comparatively unprotected
from external influence, may sometimes appear to be travelling along

the same path, but their route is uncertain and wavering, and can
double back on itself or disappear into the bush for long stretches of
time.10 By contrast the route of protected rimlands is rather linear,

6 An intriguing suggestion of the former is made by Couto 1993: 284. Another

mark of connectedness: it is in the sixteenth century that we first see mercenaries
of strikingly diverse origins (Africa, Persia, the Malabar and Goromandel coasts of
India, Malaysia and Europe) fighting for both local kings and the Portuguese. See, for
example, the verses 1 107-1 108 of the Sitavaka Hatana (1585) in Paranavitana 1999.

On the way in which Portuguese notions may have influenced sensations of

identity among Lusitanised rebels, see Strathern 20070: Conclusion.
Indeed, the crossing-point is taken as the emblem of an obviously related
approach, which Werner and Zimmermann 2006 nevertheless distinguish from
comparative and connected histories: histoire croise.

9 In a strict sense, connected history is not comparative history at all, which is

rather concerned with isolating particular variables or structures common to distinct
societies - indeed actual connections can pollute the terms of analysis. But given that
one of those variables is connectedness itself, and that early modern Asia simply is so
'connected', in practice the two approaches can collapse into one another as soon as
analysis begins.

10 Lieberman 2003: 76-78.

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more apparently progressive, even if it only proceeds in convulsive

bursts of energy (or 'administrative cycles'), punctuated by periods of

chaos and desperate improvisation.

In the first volume outlining this theory, Lieberman concentrates
on the states of mainland Southeast Asia. At some point late in the
first millennium AD or just after it, these 'rimlands' (by virtue of
the fact that they lay on the periphery of older civilizations) played
host to 'secondary state formation', domesticating world religions and
constructing newly grand architectural complexes or public works.11

They formed, in fact, charter states, insofar as their traditions

were regarded by successors as normative and legitimating. In the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they succumbed to disintegration.
To describe the fortunes of the post-Charter regimes that sprang out of
their ruins, Lieberman presents us with patterns for the development
of territorial consolidation, administrative centralisation and cultural

integration which are different but clearly related. With regard to

the former, the post-Charter states rose and fell in turn according
to three phases: c. 1350-1 570, 1600-1752, 1760-1 830/40. 12 These
last two phases can be seen as making up an extended 'early modern
period'.13 With each successive phase, smallish kingdoms tended to be

amalgamated into larger polities.

The process of administrative centralisation Lieberman sees as
being rather more linear. Naturally, the various states of the mainland

did not march neatly in step towards governmental reform, so

the categories overlap chronologically. The charter states, existing
between 900-1450, are typed 'Pattern A'.14 From 1450-1840, one
can find Pattern B states (Decentralised Indie Administrations), which
make do with a circumscribed administrative function and little

direct political control beyond the nuclear zones, but in which the

autonomous role of monastic establishments is also reduced. From

1600-1840, however, the new regimes in Siam and Burma reveal

enough centralising will to be characterised as Pattern C (Centralised
Indie Administrations), extending the reach of the court beyond the
nuclear zone, extracting tax and services with greater efficiency and so
on.15 The characteristics of these different types will emerge in greater
11 Lieberman 2003: 77, adopts the concept of 'secondary state formation' from
Price 1978.
u Lieberman 2003: 28-30.
13 With terminological reservations: Lieberman 2003: 79-80, and 1997: 468.
14 Lieberman 2003: 31-37.

15 Lieberman also proposes a 'Pattern D', 1560-1840, Chinese-style

administration', which existed in Dong Kinh.

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detail below. And over this epoch political centralisation was matched

by cultural integration. Theravadin and Confucian ideologies were

promoted and controlled by increasingly powerful kings, and as more
and more people identified with the ethnicity of the central elite, a

deepening sense of politicised ethnic awareness was born. Lieberman

also weaves into his analysis such matters as economics, commerce,
demography and climate change, which are obviously important but

cannot be addressed here.

Now, Lieberman does not present Sri Lanka as a fellow traveller of

these sporadically-advancing mainland Southeast Asian states. In the
second volume of his project due to be published by 2009, Lieberman
intends to extend his comparative reflections to the global level,
promising to show us how 'these trajectories differed from patterns
in South Asia, island Southeast Asia and other more exposed areas of
Eurasia'.16 These exposed zones 'lacked effective barriers to nomadic
or seaborne invaders', and so remained vulnerable to domination by
elites who were substantially foreign to their subject populations.17 So
where should we place Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is clearly a 'rimland', lying as it does on the periphery of
the original heartland of Hindu-Buddhist civilization in India even if
it took inspiration from that heartland remarkably quickly. In a broad
sense, before 1500 it was also comparatively 'protected' from military
projects - if not cut off from commercial movements. It is perhaps this
mixture of exposure to benign movements of men, goods and ideas and

relative insulation from malign projections of power, particularly early

in the first millennium, that gave rise to the Anuradhapura civilization.

This enjoyed an extraordinarily long lease of life from roughly the

second century BC to the late tenth century AD, of which the period

circa 67-429 AD was apparently remarkably stable. Incidentally, this

chronology seems analogous to that of the Roman Empire in some
ways.18 To be sure, its close proximity to South India meant that from

the fifth century Sri Lanka was exposed to incursions from across
the straits, and from 900-1500 AD, the course of Lankan history was
heavily influenced by its vulnerability to subcontinental powers such as

16 Lieberman 2003: 80. He has begun this task with some concluding observations
in his 1997b paper.
!/ Lieberman 2003: 80.
18 For example, the way Anuradhapura apparently (we have to be wary of our
inevitable reliance on chronicles here) flourished in the first four centuries AD, and
then suffered serious instability due to external attacks in the fifth-seventh centuries

AD - when, of course, the western Roman empire fell. On Anuradhapura political

historv. see C R. He Silva innT: 95-/<n

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the Colas. Nevertheless, from the sort of very large-scale comparative

perspective that Lieberman asks of us, the resilience of indigenous

rulership is impressive.

Indeed, it was only after 1500 that the sea became more of a
conduit than an obstacle and the island was rendered magnificently
unprotected, standing as it did athwart the sea-lanes connecting the
eastern and western halves of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, by this time
the centre of political gravity had moved to the least topographicallyprotected and most commercially-interesting part of the island: the
city of Kotte was located on the southwest coast surrounded by spicegrowing hinterlands. One could say, in other words, that the dynamic

movements of the early modern period were felt as a more violent

perturbation by unprotected lands. In Sri Lanka's case these were
present in the successive European colonial projects that it was largely

unable to resist. The implication here is that such interruptions

ensured that the island would not properly be able to engender the
shift from the fissiparous Pattern B states to the hardier types of

Pattern G.19

Long after this present essay was written - but shortly before it
was published! - I saw an extract from Lieberman's work-in-progress,

from which it became clear that in broad outline he traces a similar

trajectory for the whole of island Southeast Asia in his overarching

scheme: it too was 'protected' by the sea until the sixteenth and

seventeenth centuries at which point it became subject to the

vicissitudes of the exposed zone.20 However, the great majority of

this essay was written with only Lieberman's first volume to hand, and
thus it takes mainland Southeast Asia as its main point of comparison.

I considered Sri Lanka as a particularly revealing test-case because of

its close kinship with the states of this region, which meant that many
of the variables remain constant while its geographic situation is left

as the outstanding difference. In short, Sri Lanka looks analogous

to the mainland world in socio-political terms, and analogous to
the island world in geopolitical terms. The result is that from c.
19 The use of this typology need not imply any teleology of state progression. See
Lieberman 2003: 34, on how 'the weaker Indie states, including most Shan, Lao and
Malay principalities, maintained a version of Pattern B throughout their history'.
20 Parts of the island region become unprotected from 1511, but Lieberman
suggests the term is only generally applicable by perhaps 1680. Thanks to Lieberman
for letting me see his MSS and (forthcoming). I was thus able to make a few important
adjustments to this essay - but it remains substantially an anticipation of rather than
reflection on Lieberman's second volume.

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900-1500 Lankan political history displays some real affinities with

chronological patterns of mainland Southeast Asia, and from c. 15001800 with those of island Southeast Asia. What would happen then
when the political animals of the Southeast Asian 'galactic' species
were subjected to the harsh ecology of European imperialism?
However, I shall suggest here that it is not simply the case that
Sri Lanka was blown off course by the sixteenth-century conjuncture,
but that her preceding history was idiosyncratic by virtue of the vexed
question of continuity from much earlier epochs. This is particularly

important with regard to religion and religio-political ideas, because

Sri Lanka was the incubator, over many centuries, of the 'Mahaviharan

revolution' that would come to be so definitive of early-modern

dynamics in mainland Southeast Asia. Moreover, the problem of
apparent continuity also arises when we come to locate the charterstate period in Sri Lanka. If we are moved by synchronicity, then
the Polonnaruva period (c. 993-1250 AD) is the obvious candidate;
yet if we make attributes alone decisive then the Buddhist polity
of Anuradhapura that arose early in the first millennium, with its
massive irrigational and public works, bears many of the appropriate

hallmarks - including the critical sense in which it was seen as

normative by its successors.

This is by no means to deny that the Polonnaruva period was one

of profound transformation. On the contrary, I shall suggest here
that if one is concerned to isolate a pivotal epoch for the island's
history (an intrinsically elusive ambition), together with its aftermath
in the thirteenth century, may well form the best candidate.21 That

is to observe that many of the grand themes that most concern

our model-builders - the political, the ethnic, the literary and the
religious - seem to find their most striking advancement during the
Polonnaruva and early Dambadeniya eras when the Sinhala kings were
often engaged in intense rivalry with the Colas for dominion over the

island.22 The problem is that the 'early modern period' is thereby

drained of specificity from the other end, so to speak, as Polonnaruva
begins to look more like a template for the second millennium than a
contrastive prologue.

21 Or if this seems too long a period to be 'pivotal', one could hone in further on the
mid-twelfth to early-thirteenth centuries. If one is interested in the formation of an
inclusive and relatively homogenous Sinhala culture, some might see the eighth-ninth

centuries as crucial.

See Gunawardana 1990: 63.

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We have already waded into troubled waters here, since even

pondering the more 'static' or slow-moving features of Sri Lankan
history is to stand against the tide of recent Asian historiography,
which has been concerned to recover diachrony for pasts smoothed over

by the characterisations of Orientalist scholarship. Of course, it also

brings us uncomfortably close to the agendas of vamsas, and the story
told by some with nationalist preoccupations of the long decline from
the glories of Anuradhapura, in which even the Polonnaruva period can
be presented as a reunification of the island and a reform of Buddhism.

Anuradhapura is not only placed at the beginning of an unbroken

history of the Sinhala Buddhist nation stretching to the present day,

it is also represented as a purer, more real manifestation of that

primordial identity, the flowering of its greatest glory.23 Historicist-

minded scholars have set out to deconstruct such stories and their

work is by no means done.24 However, it ought to be remembered

that where our reflections do turn to the continuous it is in the spirit

of a comparative exercise which uses other Asian regions as its foil

and is designed to capture the varying pulse of change rather than
to stop it dead. Moreover we ought not to lose sight of a respectable
'traditionalist' perspective that would draw our attention towards what
is particular or idiosyncratic about Sri Lankan history.

The State Before 1600

The Nature of Government

The Polonnaruva kingdom seems to settle comfortably into the clothes

Lieberman has laid out for his charter-polities of Pattern A. It is

thus one of the 'classical' temple-building civilizations that drew
their wealth from the maintenance of irrigation systems and which
flourished early in the second millennium AD. So the celebrated

Polonnaruva of Parakramabahu I (1153-1186), the centre of a

unified Lanka, is easily compared to Anawratha's Pagan (10441070) or Suryavarman's Angkor (1113-1150). And, to step into

'connectedness' briefly, there were real currents of influence that may

23 Nissan 1997.
4 My definition of histoncism (as opposed to traditionalism ) was given in
Strathern 2004. See also Eagleton 2006: 26 '. . . historicism: instead of passing
absolute judgements on things we should return them to their historical contexts'.

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have helped propel the common tide of history. One such flowed out

from the island: Parakramabahu saw Southeast Asia as a legitimate

field for the demonstration of his power, lording it over parts of
the Malay peninsula, sending an invasion force into Burma, setting
up marriage alliances with Angkor.25 His kingdom would then also
be subject to the same conjuncture of fragmentation, collapsing as
it did into a number of unstable lesser polities. It was only in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that newly authoritative political
centres arose, often now based in coastal regions and more interested
in the exploitation of maritime trade.

We shall not proceed too far here into the underlying reasons as
to why this basic pattern should have been reproduced across many
parts of Eurasia. One of the most plausible in a priori terms is the
effect of climate. Lieberman points to the warming of the northern

hemisphere during the Medieval Climate Anomaly of c. 850/9001250/1300, which may have enhanced agrarian production in the
protected rimlands and so laid the basis for charter florescence.
During the subsequent climatic downturn there was a marked shift
of economic activity from the charter core to peripheral regions,
which naturally had a destabilising effect. Across the rimlands and
China too, one sees severe political disruption and dislocation from
c. 1 250-1450. 26 This chronology captures almost exactly the rise of
Polonnaruva, its disintegration in the early thirteenth century and
the subsequent period of petty princelings and centrifugalism before

the rise of Parakramabahu VI (141 1-1465). 27 What remains unclear

of course, is whether climate can be identified as the culprit in Sri
Lanka.28 On the face of it, the 'drift to the southwest' away from
the heartland of dry-zone civilization seems simply a result of its
vulnerability to military projections from South India. The marauding

25 G. R. De Silva 1997: 80-82; Hall 1999: 249-250; Lieberman 1987: 168-169;

Godakumbura 1966: 147; Walters 2000: 144.
26 Lieberman (MSS).
1 G. R. De Suva 1997: ob tells us that Sri Lanka suiiered a population decline

between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

28 For example, was the pattern and nature of monsoon activity affected? I am sure
there must be scholarship in existence that could help us here, but since this thought
came to me late, I have not sought it out. To judge from Lieberman (MSS), there were
no key knock-on effects of climate in Southern India. How might climate change (if it
was established in Sri Lanka) impact on an agrarian economy partially sustained by
a sophisticated irrigation system? Perhaps (this is no more than a throwaway notion)
the irrigation system was so finely tuned to particular climatic circumstances that it
was particularly vulnerable to change.

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rule of one such warlord Magha (1215-1255) may have proved that
the northern lowlands were now simply too 'unprotected' a location
for a political centre. But, as C. R. De Silva points out, there had been
wars and disorder before, after which the irrigation systems had been

Whatever the reasons, Sri Lanka fits the pattern, which is also
discernible in the nature of the regime that now arose in the new
centre of Kotte, a city located less than 10 km from the sea. The rapid

extension of Kotte's overlordship over the whole island during the

reign of Parakramabahu VI can be compared to the rise of Pegu under
the Toungoo kings.30 However remarkable their rise, both dynasties
failed to establish lasting institutions that might keep at bay powerful
centrifugal forces; they remained firmly within the Pattern B mode.31

Indeed, we are now in the age of the 'galactic' or 'solar' polity,

of 'tributary overlordship' or 'nested sovereignty'.32 Rule beyond the

core territories operated through a form of vassalage that allowed

sub-kings to retain much of the symbolism of royalty, and depended

on a continual cultivation and renegotiation of personal loyalties to

the high king. This system of overlordship was not simply a practical
accommodation to the business of rule but a desired end in itself: to

have under-kings was a key signal of cakravartin status. The process

of royal succession was typically fraught; its principles rarely beyond
controversy; disintegration often won the day.33 Given the institutional

weakness of the state and its ephemeral boundaries, the control of

29 C. R. De Silva 1997: 84.

30 We shall see that some aspects of the trade-oriented early modern polity (for
which, see, for e.g. Subrahmanyam 1988, 1998) are not readily applicable to Sri Lanka,
and it maybe that the importance of trade to earlier states has been underestimated.
31 On the decline of Kotte, see C. R. De Silva 1995: 12; compare Lieberman 1987:

174-175, on Toungoo Burma.

** Lieberman 2003: 33, prefers solar polity to lambiah s (197b) galactic polity .
'Tributary overlordship' is used by Roberts 2004. Obeyesekere 1995a!: 235, suggests
that galactic polities arose in Lanka after the fifteenth century. There is still a debate

about whether these formations should be seen as merely sub-species of the Indie
segmentary state, or whether there is something distinctively Buddhist and Asokan
about the political ideology and practices of Theravadin states that distinguishes them
from their Indian cousins. However in Lieberman's forthcoming volume (MSS), we
receive an illuminating account of the origin of this form of statehood in the Gupta
empire. Lieberman suggests that 'this model of multiple, nested sovereignties and

attenuated zones of influence provided a template for all later South Asian - and

indeed Indie Southeast Asian - states'.

33 See Andaya 1999: 75 on Burma and Thai examples. The principles of succession

in Arakan (or Mrauk-U, Guedes 1994: 203) and Siam (Kaempfer 1996: 36) seem
very close to those in Sri Lanka.

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manpower had absolute priority: 'whenever the dominance of the

capital was questioned it was reflected in the steady seepage of

manpower away from royal control'.34 And the more was lost the
more difficult it became to retain the redistributive powers with which

to secure loyalty. The exploitation of whatever symbolic capital that

remained was crucial for the reassertion of authority. The magnificent

grandeur of the royal image, particularly at the rites of tributepresentation, was critical. Royal blood never lost its significance, and
so it was possible to bind sub-rulers to the centre through marriage,
or replace them with closer family members after pacification.

The above paragraph is drawn from surveys of Southeast Asian

history, but it would work equally well as a snapshot of the fundamental
political structures that underlay the turmoil of Sinhalese history in
the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and probably well before

too).35 In this context, for example, the great swiftness with which

Mayadunne was able to undermine Bhuvanekabahu VTFs (15211551) authority in the 1540s, as he sucked more and more local

chiefs into his orbit and redirected the flow of revenue towards

Sitavaka, loses some of its mystery. Throughout the sixteenth century,

Kotte and Kandy sought to counter this threat through marital

alliance.36 The rapid rise and fall of Sitavaka itself, completed within

the two generations of its only kings, Mayadunne (1521-1581) and

Rajasinha I (1581-1593, but de facto rule from early 1560s), is of
course also firmly within the Pattern B mould. Indeed in its rampant
militarism and rapid self-combustion, Sitavaka seems an even better
analogy for the First Toungoo empire than Parakramabahu VI's Kotte.
Rajasinha's drive towards constant expansion while neglecting lasting

administrative reform and his descent into unpopularity through

overweening rule and religious oppression has interesting analogies
with the dark reign of Nandabayin (1581-99).37
The timing here indicates that the most mysterious, perhaps the
most under-explained aspect of Lieberman's theory, the synchronicity

34 Andaya 1999: 101 (in the context of discussing a later period), and see 78, 94.
35 Hence Yoneo Ishii's (1993) description of Ayudhya from the fourteenth century
till its fall in 1569 is remarkably apt for sixteenth-century Kotte. See too Reynolds

1995: 428-429.

00 For example, in the space of a few years, Bhuvanekabahu VII first contemplated
installing an unruly son on the Kandyan throne and then marrying a Kandyan princess

himself. See Strathern 2007a: Chapter One, and compare Charney 1999: 14 on

Arakan's attempt to control Thantwei.

37 On Nandabayin: Pimenta 2004; Reid 1988-93: ii. 282; Guedes 1994: 197-211.

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of the administrative cycles, can be applied to Sri Lanka too, for

the indigenous polities of the island undergo a late-sixteenth century

crisis just as they do on the Southeast Asian mainland: Kotte subject

to inexorable decline as an independent power with the accession
of Dharmapala (1551-1597), who finally bequeathed his crown to
Portugal in 1580; Kandy's flickering half-life smothered by Sitavaka's
invasions in the 1580s; and the latter itself dissolving completely with

Rajasinha's death in 1593.38 We might invoke here the increasingly

militiarised milieu brought about by the Portuguese presence and the

arrival of firearms - a potential driver of state consolidation, to be

sure, but an unstable one that could quickly become an agent of state
fragmentation. By the 1580s and 1590s, we find lascarin units whose

principal loyalties often appear to be with their unit commanders.

This accelerated already strong fragmentary tendencies by endowing
officers lacking royal blood with greater control of manpower, and the
ability to pursue personal objectives comparatively un-beholden to any

one court tradition. The exemplar here is Manamperuma Mohottala,

a Saivite favourite of Rajasinha I, who was left clutching the reins of

the military in Sitavaka after his patron's death, but then defected
to Kotte and thus helped to engineer the Portuguese conquest of
the lowlands.39 Whether by virtue of some conjunctural force or by
simple coincidence, the Lankan kingdoms' experience of external
interference had ended in the same collapse as mainland states such
as Ayudhaya and Pegu.40 It was only from the 1590s onwards that
the imposition of a 'foreign conquest elite' would appear to wrench its
history off in another direction entirely.

So much for the Liebermanesque perspective. There are, however,

other viewpoints to consider. If Lieberman has demoted the early
modern period in favour of a story reaching back to the tenth
century, the historian of Sri Lanka is traditionally invited to push
on much further back in time. As we have already remarked, take
a second look at Polonnaruva and its 'charter-polity' clothes begin
to look like a somewhat baggy hand-me-down from its elder brother,

38 On synchronised chronologies, see Lieberman 1997^: 526-34.

3 Strathern 2007a: Chapter Ten.
4U Of the various factors that Lieberman sees behind this collapse in the protected
rimlands of the late 1500s, we have suspended judgement on climate change and
rejected rapid commercial growth, but overambitious territorial expansion facilitated
by European-style firearms does seem to apply. Yet true to its more 'unprotected'
position, the late-sixteenth century crisis in Sri Lanka seems to represent the final
crumbling of Sinhalese polities under the pressures introduced by the Portuguese

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Anuradhapura, who had, after all, been wearing them for a millennium
or so. Some might question whether a Lankan early modernity can be

discerned via an enhanced role for trade. If Sri Lanka's geopolitical

position connecting the two halves of the Indian Ocean only made
it conclusively vulnerable to military threats after 1500, it seems to
have brought the sort of opportunities of seaborne commerce to the
states of the first millennium that we might otherwise associate with
the early modern era.41
As for administrative structures, in Lieberman's modelling there is

a sort of regression between the charter states of Pattern A and the

decentralised states of Pattern B, which works for us: the attempts
of the twelfth century kings, particularly Parakramabahu I (11531186), to centralise institutional power strike one as considerably
more ambitious than those of successive states.42 But they did not
establish any lasting administrative unity and may even have worked,
perversely, to un-knit some of the fibres of state power through the

damage they inflicted on local nobility.43 What was there to unknit? The decaying fabric of Anuradhapura. Ineluctably drawn to a
perspective on the whole of two millennia, Polonnaruva can appear
as a transitional phase between the Anuradhapura era and the more
heterogeneous polities of the second millennium. In the reflections of

Bardwell L. Smith, it is presented as a period of fragmentation and

pluralism lent a superficial unity by the military achievements of its
kings, almost as if it were exhibiting some of the symptoms of post-

charter collapse at the same time as charter establishment.44 Such,

perhaps, are the tricks of perspective of the too longue dure. It is in

this light that Tambiah's vision of an archetypal Theravadin polity,

evincing in its history less progression than oscillation - between the
brief flashes of strong statehood under a Parakramabahu I or VI and
41 I owe this point to John Rogers who is currently working on a one-volume
history of Sri Lanka, and who suggests that the major building works organised from

Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva may have been greatly assisted by trade revenues.
(Perhaps it was the rise of highly effective foreign maritime trading groups such
as the Arabs from the seventh century onwards that led to the particular aspects
of regression in Lanka?). Rogers also advises that we need a periodisation capable
of emphasising the contrasts between the state of the later Anuradhapura period
(eighth-ninth centuries) and that flourishing in the earlier centuries of the first

42 Measures include the removal of princely power over Dhakkinadesa and Rohana

so that the whole country came under Parakramabahu's personal rule, and the
establishment of king's courts in the regions, see Liyanagamage 1968: 34-42; C.

R. De Silva 1007: 83-86.

43 Smith 1978: i33;Tambiah 1976: 178.

44 Smith 1978, 1987.

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the habitually loose assemblage gathered under lesser rulers - can

acquire some appeal.45 Nevertheless, the ideological precedents set
by the first of that name were pivotal.
Persisting Boundaries

The feeling remains then that there is more to this sense of continuity

than the synchronie conceits of structuralist anthropology or the

creeping epoch-extending of a certain kind of historiography, forever

chasing antecedents further and further back in time. Is it just the

assumptions of nationalist storytelling which might incline us to trace

a single line between the two classical irrigation civilizations, and

between these and the polities of the early modern period? Alighting on
these stepping stones of state power popping up in different regions of
the island at various times is, after all, to hop over centuries of political

disintegration, over little-known marginal powers in the vanniyas or

the east, over periods of domination by South Indian regimes, over

deep transformations in their socio-economic base or relationship
to religious institutions. Moreover, the tendency for new polities to
enhance their legitimacy by evoking classical images of kingship,
by asserting lineage from grand ancestral states, is to be found all
over the world and is highlighted by Lieberman's theory through the
very term 'charter polities'.46 In what sense is it meaningful to argue

that Sinhalese rulers were doing anything different to analogues in

Southeast Asia or elsewhere? We might be impressed, for example,
that the kings of Sitavaka or Kandy were so intent on capturing
Kotte-Colombo, even when the great majority of the rest of the island
was under their rule, in order to capture a traditional seat of imperial
power and the titles to go with it.47 Yet is this really any different

to the desire of the Toungoo kings to capture Pegu, or the Siamese

appropriation of Angkor?
One idiosyncrasy of the Lankan situation is the unusual continuity in
the political significance of a geographic boundary, the island itself.48
45 Tambiah 1985: 269-71, ig>j6: passim, particularly p. 123 on the forces pulling
against centralisation.
46 Lieberman 2003: 62; Reid 1988-1993: ii. 251; Andaya 1999: 98; Xavier 2003:

47 See Goonewardena 1977: 13. There was also a strategic rationale for wanting
to defeat any foothold, no matter how small, that could function as a gateway for
Portuguese power.
In this sense, there is an intriguing comparison with the Maldives, as C. R. de
Silva (2001-2002) has shown.

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Conquest of the whole island, the attainment of unopposed sovereignty
over it, was therefore seen as a principal target of a Sinhalese ruler's

ambition and the natural right of those succeeding to the imperial

title. Bhuvanekabahu VII (1521-1551) never gave up this ambition
even when the contrast with his actual political authority was frankly
astonishing. General precedents for such ambitions were very ancient
indeed. Already in the fifth century, the Mahavamsa was celebrating
the achievements of Dhatusena (455-473) in throwing off the foreign

yoke and drawing the whole island under his rule through an epic
retelling of the reign of Dutugamunu (161-137 BC) who was supposed
to have been the first king to manage this feat. In the tenth century the
island was brought under a single royal canopy by the Okkaka kings,
who promulgated an interpretation of the vamsa texts that heralded
their special genealogical descent from mahasammata, and unique claim

to overlordship of the island - and indeed beyond.49 A poem from

the tenth century embedded in a commentary on the Mahavamsa
personifies the island of Lanka as a beautiful woman, her various
features made up of sites of religious and political fame, '. . . clothed
in the blue clothes [called] the still waters of the ocean that surround
[her]'.50 (In the spirit of connected history one might note how much
this eroticisation and fminisation of the land shares with Cola images
of the king as lover to the earth).51
The first evidence linking island-wide supremacy to a special status
and title expressed through a higher form of coronation derives from

the reign of Parakramabahu I (1 153-1 186), while his heir Nissanaka

Malla (1 187-1 196) was the first to refer to himself as a cakravartin?2
That part of the Culavamsa composed in this era takes Parakramabahu

I as its hero and forsakes any real drive towards regional ('world')
49 See Walters 2000: 129, on how 'a unified Sri Lankan polity [was] justified
DU Walters 1993: 47, the commentary is the Vamsatthappakasini. Pollock 1998: 52,
also appears to refer to this, and on p. 56, (and see p. 42), he evokes a sense of natural
political limits in terms of his thesis of vernacularisation, which we shall address
below: 'The image of "(limited) universal sovereignty" inherited from the imperial
world may have survived in some sense and even been actualised through periodic
looting adventures to distant lands, but lasting dominion was no longer sought beyond
the enlarged core'. Incidentally, this sits a little oddly with Subrahmanyam's (1997:

738-739) suggestion that visions of Universal Empire were a characteristic feature

of early modernity.

51 Compare Ali 2000: 210-212 (thanks to Walters).

* Goonewardena 1977: 7 refers to evidence of higher coronation going back to
Parakramabahu I. Contrast with Burma, for which Lieberman 1997^: 494 seems to
suggest that explicitly Buddhist themes of universal dominion under acakravatin only
became prominent in the sixteenth century.

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supremacy in political terms for a more parochial vision.53 After
this point no other Sinhala ruler would pursue any serious overseas
ambitions. The increasingly important role of the tooth relic over the
second millennium, as the item of legitimisation par excellence with a
unique power to compel others to obeisance, is also highly significant,
for by definition only one king at a time could hold it.

It needs to be emphasised again that this ambition of unity was

rarely realised in practice, and that its relevance waxed and waned: it
was far from being a political vision that effaced all others. Certainly

in the second millennium, the majority of kings were primarily

concerned with the political boundaries within the island, which were

often shifting in response to the activities of rivals. Therefore, an

assessment of how Sri Lanka might fare according to the early

modern characteristic of 'territorialisation' must be two-faced: an

early territorialisation on the plane of imagination, and a perennially

deferred counterpart on the plane of institutional reality.54
There remains a very particular form of territorial boundedness to
much of Sri Lankan political history that stands in contrast with the
more shifting activity of mainland Southeast Asia.55 Yet the next time

that unity was actually achieved would be under Parakramabahu VI.

If it was so rare, why does it make sense to give it our attention? There
are at least two answers. First, because it was no mere febrile fancy of
the odd generation of courtiers. It is apparent from the literary record
that the vision of sovereign unity became a potent organising master

53 Walters 2000: 145-146. We have seen that Parakramabahu I himself did

extend his power beyond Lanka and Walters argues that the Okkaka kings of later
Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva attempted to institute an essentially regional rather
than island-defined imperial power. However, it would not be right to infer that
such ambitions necessarily denuded the island boundaries of significance, as if no
meaningful distinctions were drawn between the exercise of power within and without

its shores. As a comparative aside we need only remember the regular attempts of
English (and then British) rulers to assert their power in the continent or further
overseas throughout a history spanning the medieval monarchy, the early modern
dynastic state and the full-blown nation-state of the industrial era.

See Biedermann 2005 for a comparison of Portuguese and Lankan territorial

visions in the sixteenth -century.

55 See also Collins 1998: 68: 'a sense of territorial boundedness arose which is both
rare before modern times and analogous, at least in this respect, to nationalist views
of legitimate power: it may in this respect be called a kind of proto-nationalism'.
This did 'not usually lead to imperial ambitions beyond the island', and this contrasts
with the much more shifting reality in Southeast Asia. See too pp. 20, 85. However,
Lieberman notes that the Burmese had a pretty consistent geographic image of their
land, consisting of the irrawaddy basin and perimeter highlands.

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symbol, drawn upon to invoke ideal attainment in many arenas oflife.

A monastic hierarch guiding the Sangha, a literary figure skilled in

all the arts, or a king with all the attributes of man: all are likened to
the comprehensive mastery of the cakravartin.56 If Parakramabahu Fs
reign (1 153-1 186) is presented as seminal in this essay, it is because
it was then that this vision of unity - in all its guises - was so firmly

established. Second, because it is very likely that Parakramabahu VI

looked back to the first king of his name, just as Parakramabahu I in
turn looked back to his forefathers in Anuradhapura.

Ethnic Continuity and Historical Consciousness Before 1600

For we have been avoiding the eye of a contentious subject: the
continuity of Sinhala culture and identity. It must somehow be
important - both to us as analysts and to them as agents - that the
rulers of Kotte were Sinhala-speakers, and they had this in common
with those of rulers in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Dambadeniya,

Gampola etc. The Burman Toungoo kings may have drawn on

Burmese precedents (late Pagan) but they saw it necessary to
take Pegu and adopt its Mon heritage too: Tabinshweithi had his
primary coronation there, married a Mon woman and favoured
Mon hairstyle. Indeed his east-west coastal empire avoided the
Burman heartland, taking in Shan and Mon areas.57 The mainland
Southeast Asian polities which rose and fell over the second
millennium can be seen as Venn diagrams which contained sub-sets
or presented intersections with a variety of tribes or ethnic groups
who were distinguished by language, style of dress, political tradition,
religious predilection, particularities which in turn were sustained by
topographical features.58 And these sub-sets often formed the various
administrative units (provinces or sub-kingdoms) of the polity.

Lieberman argues that each successive post-charter administrative

cycle saw the dominant cultural hue shade over these sub-set lines,
and it was particularly in the early modern period that single colours
began to creep over the map: the chief mainland societies of Southeast

Asia promoted cultural integration (an etic evaluation) and ethnic

56 This is the insight of Hallisey 2003: 709-71 1, 718.

57 Lieberman 2003: 153, 1987: 173-81 on Toungoo eclecticism. Most of the

material on Burma in 200^ derives from Lieberman 1084, Chapter One.

58 Andaya 1999: 58-63.

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consciousness (an emic quality).59 Both of these are imagined to move
vertically and laterally: vertically to include all the social levels of the
dominant ethnic or linguistic group, and laterally to spread over and

incorporate other ethnic groups. Cultural integration was promoted

by diverse mechanisms including the promotion and regulation of
state-sponsored Buddhism, the harnessing of the population through
royal service, tribute-presentations that brought the regions to the
centre, through rituals and pilgrimages and through continuing war
with outsiders. As for ethnic self-awareness, this is presented as arising

among an elite perhaps in the charter era (Burma) or the fourteenth

and fifteenth centuries (Ayudhya, Laos, Northern Thailand) then
diffusing both vertically down the social scale and laterally across to
be appropriated by diverse other groups over the early modern period,
'accelerating sharply in the chief mainland empires after c. 1770'.60
Lieberman is very aware that these tendencies were combined with
a paradoxical flourishing of universalist discourses of politics (world
conquering or imperial visions) and religion (the appeal to foreign
sources of religious legitimation etc), not to mention a voracious
appetite for cosmopolitan fashions among the central elite.61 It is for
these reasons, and others that he eschews the terminology of 'protonationalism' for that of 'politicised ethnicity'.62

How does this compare to Sri Lanka? The etic evaluation is

difficult to make at present, because we lack the appropriate kind
of assimilative and conceptual work.63 However, it does seem that
59 Lieberman 2003: 38-44; 1007^: 481-406.
60 Lieberman 2003: 44. Lieberman 1997: 496, says that most of the 'state-focussed
identities' he describes only cohered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, (e.g.
p. 487, on Siamese identity only gradually emerging after Angkor's collapse in the
fifteenth century).

61 Lieberman 2003: 200-201 reflects on how hierarchalism is compatible with

group identity.

62 It is fascinating to compare Lieberman's work with some recent research into

the production of what Hirschi 2005 refers to as a 'nationalist' discourse among
late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century German humanists. For these writers were
working within a broader civilizational ecumene - that is to say they were writing
in Latin and plundering its resources to combine the concepts of patrio and natio.
Moreover, they were addressing their works to a Habsburg monarch who was pursing
primarily dynastic aims at the head of a supra-national agglomeration. So patriotic
and ethnic sentiment (albeit one imagines of essentially limited elite appeal) amidst
political, intellectual and linguistic cosmopolitanism. This presents a qualification of
sorts even to the vernacular millennium theme we shall encounter later.

w If scholars such as Mary Elizabeth Berry (1997) complain of the lack of evidence
for capturing something as elusively abstract as 'cultural integration' in Tokugawa
Japan, how much more impoverished ought the historian of Sri Lanka to feel?

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by the thirteenth century - and even perhaps by the eighth to ninth

centuries - there was already a certain cultural homogeneity to the

Sinhala-speaking majority in the island as expressed particularly in a
remarkable unity oflanguage (that is to say, with few major differences

in regional dialect) and to the predominance of a capacious Buddhism

in their religious lives.64
Sri Lanka is profitably seen in the light of Sheldon Pollock's account

of a general shift across many parts of Eurasia early in the second

millennium from the 'universalistic' to the 'localised' - as seen most

clearly in the increasing popularity of writing in the vernacular as

opposed to the classical languages such as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek
and so on.65 Lieberman has developed Pollock's analysis to remark
that vernacularisation was most vigorous on the periphery of the
older centres from which the universal languages disseminated.66 Sri

Lanka is of course on the furthest periphery of the North Indian

heartland in South Asia, and sure enough here we find early and
vigorous vernacularisation. Sinhala as a literary language dates back
to the eighth century, when the Brahmi script was replaced by the
round-shaped script capable of representing long vowels.67 The graffiti

from the Sigiriya site of the eighth and ninth centuries reveals a
Sinhala literary culture in which a quite surprising variety of social
groups participated: courtiers and villagers, men and women, monks
and laymen.68 Charles Hallisey sees the fullest realisation of literary
Sinhala around the turn of the millennium.69 In one sense then,
some sort of vertical integration was probably achieved early on in
comparison with Southeast Asian societies; in another sense one might
only detect a directed administrative push towards homogenisation in

the late eighteenth or nineteenth century.70 Again then, Sri Lanka

can seem either too premature or too late-developing.

64 On Buddhism see below. Roberts 2004: 9, 23, 29-30 emphasises the unity of
55 Pollock 1998.
66 In his forthcoming book, Lieberman (MSS). Thus in Europe it occurred earlier
in Ireland and England than in France and Italy; in South Asia, Tamil country and
the Deccan saw a flourishing vernacular literature before that of North India.
67 Hallisey 2003: 695, sees this as 'part of a process aimed, in part, at standardising

the language'. See also Gunawardana 1995: 14.

bH Hallisey 2003: 721-727.
69 Hallisey 2003: 691; Pollock (1998: 52-53) himself sees the poems of the later
Polonnaruva era as paradigmatic.
/u I am thinking here of the promotion of Theravadin orthodoxy associated with
the Siam Nikaya.

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Be that as it may, Lieberman is equally as concerned with lateral
integration, with what happens when the territorial expansion of the
state brings different ethnic or cultural groups under its authority. The

Sinhalese kingdoms already manifested a long-standing acceptance

of cultural heterogeneity, as seen in their relationships with the
vadda people, or with the Tamils of the north and east whenever
they were brought under the canopy of the cakravartin. Given that
canopy could not extend beyond the island, of more relevance perhaps

is the relationship with immigrant groups, who came in substantial

numbers in the Dambdadeniya and Kotte eras. These new groups were

lent a place, often a subordinated one, within an overarching sociopolitical framework rather than being immediately assimilated.71 By

the sixteenth century, for example, we find various fishing castes

populating coastal regions and preserving their Hinduism, or the
Karavas settled in the southwest as a fighting force, or the recentlyarrived chieftains ruling the sparsely-populated vanniyar region in the
north.72 But if the initial concern was to contain and master difference

rather than simply erase it, the latter was promoted over the long
term by the organic forces of 'Buddhicisation' and 'Sinhalacisation'
(as particularly explored in the work of Tambiah and Obeyesekere).
If the etic question is beset by lack of directed analysis, the question
of self-conscious identity is beset by an abundance of controversy. We
can begin by being clear that ethnicity is not defined here as implying

a firm or articulated notion of shared ancestry. Apart from the

difficulties of finding evidence for this sort of understanding, it seems
too narrow for the task at hand, which is to work out if - and when,

and to what extent - it was meaningful for people to see themselves

as being a member of the 'Sinhala' group.73 In Sri Lanka, a Sinhala
identity coalesced at least as an elite or dynastic category early in the

71 Tambiah 1992: 145, refers to a 'standard South Asian mode of differentially

incorporating into an existing society sectarian or alien minorities: infriorise them
and place them in a subordinate position in the hierarchy'.

72 See Nevill: Or. 6606(77. Ill), in Somadasa 1987-1995, for a fascinating oral
history of one such vanniyar chieftain, Kandure Bandara and his successors.

73 Whether that is understood to have cultural, political or other connotations

besides the linguistic. As pointed out by Eisenstadt and Schluchter 1998: 14,
we need a much broader appreciation of collective identities than modernisation
theorists generally allow. Obeyesekere 1995^: 238, is right to highlight the futility in
drawing too 'sharp distinctions between ethnic, national and other kinds of translocal
identities'. This means that one may well want to quibble with the definitions of such
terms in Hastings 1997, which is also weakened perhaps by a discernible Christo- and
Anglo-centrism. Nevertheless Hastings' brand of nuanced historical comparativism

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first millennium. Exactly when and how it subsequently underwent a
vertical diffusion down to the very lowest rungs of the social ladder

is still a matter of great debate, famously pursued by K. N. O.

Dharmadasa and R. A. L. H. Gunawardana - but one contained within

the latter half of the first millennium and the first two centuries of

the second.74 One disputed text from the tenth century, the Dhampiya
Attuva Gatapadaya, apparently asserts that the term for the 'Sinhala' (or
helu) language is derived from the name for the residents of the island,
which is in turn derived from the dynasty ruling over them.75 However,
even the most historicist of the disputants, Gunawardana, admits that

the subsequent Cola occupation may have provided conditions for an

'archaic ethnicity', that is to say one relevant at least to small groups

of the literati. Thus he suggest that the crucial terminological shift

to an inclusive definition of 'Sinhala' had happened by the reign of
Parakramabahu I's successor, Nissankamalla (1187-1 196). 76 It was
this same Nissankamalla who broadcasted the first explicit arguments
that a king of Lanka must be oksatriya lineage and Buddhist fidelity,
and who made first use of the cakravartin title

of political rhetoric (or bombast!), Nissankamalla's brief reign looks

rather seminal for the ensuing millennium.78
provides a much more promising template for investigating the Lankan case than
that of the modernisation theorists.

74 Gunawardana 1990, 1995; Dharmadasa 1992. However, it is even possible that

the term covered 'service castes' by the fifth century, as Tambiah 1992: 134 at least
appears to hint.

75 Gunawardana 1995: 35-51; Roberts 2004: 56.

7b According to Gunawardana 1995: 54-58; 1990: 63-65, the late twelfth-century
Dharmapradipika carries the first unambiguous definition of 'Sinhala' to include all the

Sinhala-speaking inhabitants of the island - but he acknowledges that 'the process

leading to this change would have very well started at an earlier time' (1995: 58).

77 Gunawardana 1995: 54-58; 1990: 63-65, argues that the Dharmapradipika

formed part of an ideological project of the Kalinga dynasty that had to resolve

two imperatives: to place the throne out of the reach of the native aristocracy while
at the same time establishing a powerful moral connection between themselves and
the traditions of the island's inhabitants that Cola or Tamil pretenders could not
match. The former was achieved through insisting on ksatriya lineage, while the latter

was effected by adherence to Buddhism. See Walters 2000: 145 on the title 'Kalinga
Wheel-Turning Monarch (cakravartin)\ Liyanagamage 1968: 58, refers to a record of
Queen Lilavati attaining the sovereignty of tri-simahala (a tripartite division of Lanka)
in the last few years of the twelfth century.

/b Not all of this was necessarily as innovative as it may appear: the emphasis on
the Buddhist identity, for example, was probably an explicit statement of an ancient
but previously implicit principle. Indeed, it is strongly suggested in the inscription of

Mahinda IV (956-972; see Epigraphia Zeylanica 1904-1943: i. 240) which proclaims

that none but Bodhisattvas would become kings in Lanka. As for ethnicity, remember

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However, Gunawardana still wants to argue that a sense of
Sinhalaness remained of interest only to a small minority, and did
not emerge as strongly politicised and widely relevant until the shift

to a 'mature' ethnicity under the British - an epistemic watershed

shared with much recent historicist work. Towards the end of this

essay we shall comment on how this underestimates the implications

of military struggle with earlier European power, but it may also
underestimate the potential for a broader Sinhala consciousness in
the late Polonnaruva era and its immediate aftermath, assembled
against a common and heretical Cola enemy. We ought to think of
such sentiments as constituting a 'soft5 identity, one sometimes more
relevant to elites than to the masses and whose salience rose and
fell according to political context - rather than as marking the birth

of an eternal realisation. One such context may have arisen with

the so-called 'Sinhala rebellion' against Bhuvanekabahu VI (14691477). When he brought down his army from Jaffna to take control
of Kotte city, he appears to have sent a wave of disgruntled displaced

Sinhalese courtiers out to the provinces to raise opposition against

the newcomers.79 It is possible then that subsequent interactions with

the Portuguese only reinforced an identity that already had some

resonance with a wider population.

As it happens, the chronology of a socially-comprehensive

Sinhalaness is not a matter that we need to resolve here, because

the perspective of the ruling elites themselves is important with

regard to our comparison with Southeast Asia. For we can say

that by the fifteenth century, those who built their capitals in

Dambadeniya, Gampola, Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy would have

thought of themselves as of the same people who had built

Anuradhapura, and this feeling would have amounted to much more

than a tenuous proprietary myth; it was built on a rich and apparently
continuous narrative.

This may seem like a striking statement to make, but then the
antiquity and persistence of the Pali and Sinhala chronicle traditions is
such a striking and unusual fact. If Polonnaruva seems to some today as
a reform or revival of civilization, it is a sentiment that finds its echo in
the perspective of the late twelfth/early thirteenth century Culavamsa,

which compares Parakramabahu I with Dutugamunu (circa, secondthat Gunawardana is the most 'revisionist' of the disputants: Dharmadasa would set
a tenth-century cap on the development of an inclusive Sinhala consciousness.
79 Strathern (forthcoming).

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century BC), a trope which was in turn a resurrection of a comparison

that the fifth-century Mahavamsa invoked for Dhatusena (455-473

AD). Whatever their origins and their shifting political relevancies,
it is difficult to argue that these vamsa discourses were only ever
meaningful to very limited literate circles as specific projects of
dynastic propaganda when we find their myths and messages in quite

different kinds of texts, such as the Sinhala Pujavaliya, which was

intended for broad oral dissemination.80 And beyond the chronicles
there was a rich literary heritage about which, as Charles Hallisey, has
remarked, 'Sinhala literati have been self-conscious . . . for more than

a millennium'.81 Indeed Hallisey has argued that the conventional

overviews of Lankan history, which rupture the past according to the
shifting locations of the capital cities, can serve to efface patterns and

continuities in literary culture that remained apparently untouched

by such upheavals.82

From the beginnings of the post-charter period onwards, texts

are routinely determined to place their subject within an historical

overview reaching back into the earliest times.83 As a brief

example from the sixteenth century we could refer to the Sinhala

Rajaratnakaraya composed in the small and relatively recent kingdom
of Kandy, probably in the 1540s when it was penned in by Portugueseinfluenced Kotte on the one side and Sitawaka on the other. But it

allowed its ruler to trace his descent all the way back to Vijaya and the
Anuradhapura kings and is clearly dependent on the Pujavlaliya for its
reading of the vamsas^ In the 1580s, the Sitavaka Hatana reminded its

listeners of Dutugamunu's martial feats against the Tamils.85 A few

years later, when scions of the ruling families of Sitavaka and Kotte
fled to Goa in the 1590s and converted to Christianity they were
80 I mean in the second millennium. Hallisey 2003: 733, tells us that the Pujavaliya
explicitly addresses itself to eight audiences, which includes kings, monastic leaders
and 'villagers in remote places who never see monks'.
81 Hallisey 2003: 691, and see p. 728: Theravada Buddhist culture and Sri Lankan
political culture celebrated those who looked to the past to find guidance on how to
think and act in the present'.
82 Hallisey 2003: 720-721. This is partly because of important centres of literary
production existed outside of the capitals.

8 Early modern examples of historical accounts of the Sangha include the

fourteenth-century Nikayasangrahaya, and fifteenth-century Saddharmaratnakaraya, see

Ilangasinha 1992: 13-16.

a Rajaratnakaraya in S. De Silva 1930: 54.

Paranavitana 1999: verse 447. The later Rajasinha Hatana compares the

Portuguese to Demala (Tamil) armies who sacked the city of Anuradhapura, see
Roberts 2004: 134.

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able to chant versions of the Rajavaliya to a Portuguese writer such as
Agostinho de Azevedo, who used them to flesh out the early history
of the island.86 By the mid-seventeenth century, the Portuguese were
well aware of the Sinhalese consciousness of Anuradhapura history.87
And Ferno de Queirs, a Portuguese Jesuit, would assert in the
1680s that 'as for the character of the Chingalas, they are generally
proud, vain and lazy . . . because of the antiquity of their Kingdom
and people [nao] and the liberty in which they were always brought
up'.88 In short, Sinhalese ruling elites had a sense of historical selfconsciousness, of their vicissitudes as over centuries.
By this time, European observers were making similar comments
about mainland Southeast Asian peoples and their robust pride for
their distinctive laws and customs.89 Yet the chronicle tradition
there - which owed a lot to Sinhalese models - was much less

ancient.90 Naturally, it would not do to imagine that the ideology of the

vamsas and other texts corresponded to the mentalit of a whole society,

but we would surely be missing something distinctive about Sri Lankan

history if we failed to see the characteristic way in which the realities
of instability and fragmentation were combined with stubborn visions

or aspirations of unity (of the sasana, of the political realm). This

must lend a vital element of subjective and objective continuity to the
cyclical rise and fall of political centres in the island, and one that is

much less evident in the various administrative cycles of mainland

Southeast Asia. As so often with reflections on the slippery issue
of identity, the distinction can seem vanishingly slender from some
perspectives and yet awkwardly critical from others; it is perhaps, to
make an analogy with the West, the difference between the relation
86 Azevedo i960: 197-263, and see Couto 1993: 101.
0/ See Constantino de Sa de Miranda s report of 1038 published in r lores 2001.
Meanwhile, the narrative of Robert Knox 1989: ii. 239 reveals that the ruins of
Anuradhapura were well known to the Kandyans and it's Bo tree a sacred site.
88 Ferno de Queyroz 1992: 21-23 (I have altered the translation a little in
accordance with Pieris edition, 1916: 17-18), echoed, p. 175, which refers to the
'mettle of the natives' deriving from 'the length of their ancient lineage and the
complete absence of foreign domination'. See also p. 305, on consciousness of
Anuradhapura history, and the lascarin document reproduced from page 1009. On
p. 1019, these Sinhalese are found arguing thus: '. . . those who say so have not seen or
read the ancient books concerning the affairs of this island and of the Kings thereof,
which are extant even to-day'.

by E.g. Lieberman 2003: 324-325.

yu One can contrast Lankan chronology with that presented in Wyatt 1997 on the
'interior' history of Chiang Mai or Lan Na, 1400-1800, which argues for a definite
shift in the mentality over that time.

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towards Ancient Rome borne by early medieval Byzantium and that
claimed by the Carolingian kings.91
Lieberman has reflected on the circumstances under which 'cultural

or political interdependence translated into a degree of self-conscious,

articulated solidarity', and highlighted two factors: 'First was a stable

political centre - in turn dependent on favourable geography and

external security - that could coordinate patronage, validate cultural
norms, and provide a focus of identity

was a sustained sense of alterity or competition rooted in struggle for

scarce resources . . ,'.92 In Lieberman's later work, these become some

of the core features of the 'protected rimlands'. It is immediately

apparent that after the abandonment of Anuradhapura, Sinhalese
continuity is not shepherded by some equally continuous and stable
political centre, and this was in part because its 'external security'
was increasingly corroded, first by land-based South Indians and then

from 1500 more emphatically by seaborne Europeans. But, before

1500 there were important limits to this vulnerability, for at no point
did a minority conquest elite establish a stable long-lasting rule over
the majority of the Sinhalese inhabitants. Indigenous rule survived,
even if outside pressures combined with the inheritance of the Indie
model of hierarchical sovereignty to ensure that it would usually do
so in fractured and polycentric form. Its geography was critical in a
further sense, in that it helped to precipitate a stable political vision of
the ambition for island-wide overlordship.93

Buddhism Before 1500

Before we move on to consider the European interruption, we need
to reflect on what Lieberman's theory has to say about religion and
its role in the grand drama of integration. Established as a state
religion in Burma from the eleventh century and elsewhere from
the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the implantation of Theravada
Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia antedates that of monotheism

91 Although the Sinhala sense of lineage and cultural and linguistic continuity was
arguably stronger even that the Byzantines with Rome.

y^ Lieberman 1997a: 460. For more on war and competition as leading to ethnic
consciousness, see Moore 1997: 595 on twelfth-century Europe.
y A comparative glance towards Japan may be instructive here, because it had
geopolitical seclusion (which promoted an early distinctive culture and continuous
traditions of overlordship) and a relative absence of real struggle with external forces.

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by many centuries, yet Lieberman and Anthony Reid have argued
that it underwent important transformations during the early modern

period.94 Theravada Buddhism in the 'charter' phase was essentially

a cult of the ruling elite, and one which fluidly co-existed with
promiscuous acceptance of Mahayana, Saivite and Vaisnava motifs.
There are impressively large landed monastic foundations which
become the chief centres of Pali learning, but little attempt is made to
penetrate into peasant religion which retains animist characteristics.

But as the millennium wore on, and particularly from the

fifteenth century, rulers of newly ambitious centralising states became

increasingly single-minded in their promotion of Theravada and the

Mahaviharan tradition. Claiming dominion over such heterogeneous
regions, it was natural for them to seek legitimation in a universal
textually-based form of religious authority: the moral superiority
of the ruler and the cultural superiority of the ruling elite were
affirmed as local cults were undermined.95 A network of monasteries

spread throughout the land and ordinary people were brought into the
Theravada world by entering into exchange with the village-dwelling
monks, giving alms, listening to sermons andjatakas, participating in
merit-making rituals, absorbing Buddhist art and going on pilgrimages

or to festivals. And the meanings of all this religious activity were

increasingly being controlled by the centre as rulers took it upon
themselves to disseminate texts and ritual norms, and to make
the Sangha subject to a single hierarchy under their supervision,
exercising the right to purge and reform it at will. These latter
changes were particularly apparent from the seventeenth century,
as the various Sanghas were endowed with tight organisations, often
under the leadership ofmahasangharajas. Monasteries began to provide
an education for lay-folk that became routine for the elite and would
slowly come to encompass lower social circles too.

A rigorous analysis of how the evolution of Sri Lankan Buddhism

might correspond to this model calls out for specialist attention. Here,

I shall merely offer some initial pointers and make the observation
that the unusual continuity from antiquity is even more marked

in the religious sphere than in the political, and as a result the

concept of the early modern period, even its long version, loses much

94 Lieberman 2003: 38 provides a summary, and see the beginnings of each chapter
for application to regions.

95 Reid 1988-1993: ii. 193-194; Lieberman 2003: 58, 62; Reid 1993: 16. Also

Charney 1998: 20-22, 25.

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of its appeal.96 Sheer antiquity is most obviously apparent in the
establishment of Buddhism as the religion of the ruling elite certainly
by the first century AD.97 By this time the Sangha had been positioned
as the privileged representatives of transcendent order and therefore

the chief articulators of royal legitimacy. Of course, over the first

millennium the same could be said for other regions across South
Asia, as monastic orders existed in a cosmopolitan world of intellectual
exchange, diversity, and competition encompassing different forms of
what we now know of as Theravada as well as Mahayana.
The most compelling interpretation of what happened next in the
progress of Buddhism across Asia has been advanced by Reynolds and

Hallisey, who refer to a general shift from a 'civilizationaP phase,

in which Buddhism was essentially a cosmopolitan phenomenon of
monastic elites patronised by imperial elites in urban centres, to a
much more localised 'cultural' phase, in which the monastic orders
settled within cultural or state boundaries and began to extend deeper
roots among society at large. They see this as beginning in the fifth
century and reaching culmination in the ninth to thirteenth, a vague
and roomy chronology to be sure, but one which seems tailor-made for
the awkward dimensions of Sri Lankan history. For our purposes, we
can extend its application to a range of related developments: (1) the
promotion of the Mahaviharan brand of Theravada by ruling dynasties
and a corresponding concern for orthodoxy and purity; (2) localisation;

(3) vernacularisation and popularisation; (4) royal control over the

Sangha. What is striking about these factors, stated baldly in this way,
is that they seem close to some of the defining features of the early
modernity of the Southeast Asian states.

Mahaviharan Orthodoxy

By taking us right back into the heart of the first millennium in this
way, Reynolds and Hallisey's formulation allows to appreciate how Sri

Lanka became the crucible for the ideological transformations that

96 However, it might be wise to ponder the extent to which this apparent contrast
with Southeast Asia is actually the result of the quite different perspectives that have
prevailed in the two historiographies. Would a proper 'connected' history reveal the
flows of mutual influence between two regions moving essentially in pace with one
another, or would it leave standing a fundamental 'comparative' idiosyncratic priority

for Lanka?

97 Collins 1998: 68-69.

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played such an important part in this shift, and which can already be
glimpsed in embryonic form in the Mahavamsa of the fifth century AD.

It was around this time that Sri Lanka played host to the revival of
Pali - and therefore the cultivation of the Pali imaginaire in Collins'
terms - which began with the commentarial work of Buddhagosa in
the fifth century AD.98 One particular Theravadin lineage, that of
the Mahavihara nikaya, came to prevail. In one sense, this was in fact
a victory for orthodoxy itself, since the Mahavihara, when set aside

the other two Sinhala nikayas, the Abhayagiri and Jetavana, had an
unusual preoccupation with the purity of doctrine." In the ninth and
tenth centuries AD, various kings began to promote the Mahaviharan
lineage above the others and align themselves firmly with its rhetoric,
a movement which reached its culmination in the abolition of other

lineages in the twelfth century.100 With all due regard for 'historicist'
insistence on the mutability of ideology embodied in subsequent texts,

there was now a distinctive Mahaviharan Theravada approach, and

one which was readily exported to southeast Asia. In the fifteenth

century, in the reigns of Tilokaracha in Chiang Mai (1441-1487)

and Dammazeidi in Pegu (1472-1492), it became dominant as an

instrument of state centralisation.101


Part of that Mahaviharan package was the notion of a particular

connection between Buddhism and a territorial or political space,
concretely represented in the accounts of the bodily visits of the
Buddha himself.102 Originally this was expressed in the idea that the

island of Sri Lanka and its kings had been ordained to preserve the
dhamma. This is clearly a key ideological component of the general
localisation of Buddhism that Reynolds and Hallisey describe, and it
is present as early as the Mahavamsa, most strongly in the symbolic
98 Walters 2000: 119.
99 Gunawardana 1979: 50; Walters 2000: 124.

100 Walters 2000: 146 refers to this exportable package as the VAP

(Vamsatthappakasini) worldview, although he is concerned to differentiate this tenthcentury formulation from the Mahavamsa.

101 Reid 1988-1993: ii. 195.

1 Hastings 1997:188-198 reflects on the ways in which Christianity has shaped
nation-formation under seven-headings, each of which could come under the rubric of

localisation, vernacularisation and popularisation, and (with suitable tweakings) be

applied profitably to the case of Sinhala ethnicity. The role of a vernacular literature
is critical to Hastings' analysis.

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resonances of the Dutugamunu myth.103 Yet it may not have become

a pre-eminent feature of royal discourses until the ninth century,

and it is not until the later Polonnaruva period that it might be
seen to correspond to a thoroughgoing localisation or acculturation
of Buddhist institutions and practice.104 Mainland Southeast Asian
states then produced their own versions of this process - a paradoxical

observation perhaps until we remember that exclusivist approaches

can be the most exportable of cultural goods.105
Again, the reification of territory in this way did not mean that the

homeland became the only appropriate site for political or religious

domination. On the contrary, an apprehension of divine destiny is
likely to elicit a conviction of a right to just arbitration over the
destinies of less favoured peoples or lands. Lieberman argues that
'territorial versions of universal religions provided a critical source
of legitimacy' in the early modern period.106 Indeed he remarks of
all of his Eurasian protected rimlands that in this epoch, they 'were
frequently imagined as unique fields of holy sites, guarded by these
deities, to whose protection the ruler ensured access by his piety and
morality'.107 In Burma, such convictions allowed its kings to represent

invasions of other Theravada realms as pious reinstatements of

pure Buddhism. Lieberman presents this 'fusion of spatially-bounded
doctrines and ethnicity' as a key continuity between early modern and
properly modern (i.e. nationalist) group sensibilities.108 But in the
case of Sri Lanka we surely then have to push back the continuity even
further: we have seen that it was articulated as early as fifth century,
and attained a certain pre-eminence when the Okkakas instituted the
Mahaviharan worldview, as Jonathan Walters would have it, in the
tenth century.109 It is not surprising that this happened as part of an
imperial courtly vision. Nor is it surprising that the thirteenth-century

103 Gunawardana 1979: 171; Seneviratne 1997: 8; Obeyesekere 19950: 239;

19956: 223.
Hallisey 2003: 731-732 on twelfth-century attempts 'to mark out within this
larger identity the separate positions of the Cola and Sinhala monks'.

105 See Tambiah 1987: 205.

106 Lieberman 1997: 495.
107 Lieberman 1997: 490.
1UB Lieberman 1997: 495. Although Pollock's (1998: 63) emphasis on the divorce
between governance and religion in South Asia (as contrasted with Europe) works in
some ways for Sri Lanka - the principle of 'one state one religion' was clearly alien
here - these themes of Buddhist localisation and territorialisation surely present an
important qualification to that abstraction.
09 In that tenth-century poetic personification of Lanka cited earlier (Walters
1993: 47), the red ornament in the middle of Lady Lanka's head is Sumanakuta,

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Pujavaliya would claim that Parakramabahu I set out to conquer
overseas Indian lands because he wanted to rid them of false beliefs.110

Vernacularisation and Popularisation

We already mentioned that Sri Lanka fits tolerably well into Sheldon

Pollock's model of the Vernacular millennium5, in which the early

centuries of the second millennium are critical. The religious

manifestation of this tenth-twelfth century conjuncture is emphasised

by Walters, who sees these early vernacular centuries as pivotal for

cthe deep integration of Buddhism into popular consciousness and
practice', the establishment of 'domesticated Buddhism'.111 This is
when our corpus of texts becomes less dominated by Abhidharmic
concerns as we find writings reaching out to the lay community in
order to inculcate Buddhist principles and motifs. This is also when
the sacred geography of the island is carved out. In other words the
'newly coherent geocultural space' that we see in the literature is part
and parcel of a new mobility sustained by and sustaining the spread of
Buddhist norms.112 Royal centres are now drawing people in to partake
in tooth relic festivals, or promoting the pilgrimage to the Buddha's
footprint.113 All of this is reminiscent of the modes of development
that writers have proposed for early modern Southeast Asia.

And other definitions of what a popular Buddhism might mean

render its history in Sri Lanka much older than that, certainly
messier and more obscure. It is striking that even in the centuries
BC there was a widespread dispersal of Brahmi inscriptions, usually
signalling some form of monastic dwelling or stupa, throughout the
island.114 A network of Buddhist buildings had certainly penetrated

atop which lies Buddha's footprint marking Lanka as autonomous by virtue of his

consecration of it.

110 Liyanagamage 1968: 114.

111 Walters (personal communication 21/6/04). I am very grateful to Walters lor

providing the expertise upon which many of the points of this paragraph rest, and
other points here and there. However he cannot be held responsible for my use of his

comments here. See also Hallisey 2003: 692, 707, 732; Deegalle 2003: 153-155.

2 On local sacred geography as reflected in the emergence of Kelaniya during the

Dambdeniya period, see Walters 1996.

113 See Obeyesekere 1995a: 237-238 on the role of obligatory pilgrimage in
sustaining an island-wide religious culture, 'the larger moral community of Sinhala


114 Thanks again to Walters (personal communication) for this.

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the countryside by the end of the first millennium.115 At least in terms

of its geographical extension, Buddhism cannot be seen as a religion

only of state capitals and great urban centres. By the ninth century,
the increasing socio-economic predominance of the three nikayas based

at Anuradhapura was transforming the lives, and perhaps therefore

the religious sensibilities, of many layfolk through their monastic offshoots dispersed throughout the island. Not only would many ordinary

people have had monks as landlords, but the great monasteries

were also becoming places where layfolk met for education, religious
discussion and the arts.116 The ninth is also the century from which
Charles Hallisey charts the rise of newly intense forms of Buddhist
personal devotion, arising in part from competition with and attraction
towards the Saivite and Vaisnavite cults from the mainland.117

Royal Control

When we come to consider the organisation of the Sangha and its

relations with temporal power, we apparently have a much tighter
focus on the twelfth century and the pivotal reign of Parakramabahu I

(1153-1186). We have to cast Anuradhapura as the charter polity

here, for it is only in the first millennium that the state existed
alongside 'autonomous religious institutions with extensive economic
and social functions'.118 Just as early modern Southeast Asian kings
would see the re-organisation of the Sangha as a natural corollary
of the centralisation and expansion of their rule, so Parakramabahu
F s political feats were matched by his successful unification of the Sri
Lankan Sangha. In a further foreshadowing of the manoeuvres of later
Theravadin monarchs, this was pursued through the leadership of the

ascetic forest-dwelling arannikas.119 Here we do have a permanent

transformation: after this point sectarian conflict per se ceases to be

a major factor in Lankan history, as all monks are considered the

115 Gunawardana 1979: 51, even asserts that 'Buddhism had penetrated
throughout the island well before nikaya divisions arose'.

Gunawardana 1979: 137, and see p. 167, 346, and on the development of
festivals and religious ceremonies, 225-241.
117 Hallisey 1988, Reynolds and Hallisey 1989: 19. The emergence of aBuddhicised
moral community by the tenth century, at least in Anuradhapura itself, is suggested
by the revolt by 'the army and the citizens' when King Udaya III challenged the rights
of a monastery to offer asylum: Gunawardana 1Q7Q: 208-21 1.
118 Lieberman 2003: 35.
9 These were drawn more from the provinces than from the monasteries at the

capital, Gunawardana 1979: 315-316.

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heirs of the Mahavihara.120 Gunawardana has argued that the three
great nikayas had lost their institutional force during the chaos of the

Cola invasions and the confiscation of their wealth by Vikramabahu

I (1111-1132), and that a movement within this Sangha under

threat called upon Parakramabahu I to bring them all under common

leadership.121 This then is the moment of the shift, in Reynolds

and Hallisey's terms, from the largely autonomous and grandiose
monastic centres of the 'civilizational phase' to the Sangha brought
under the command of the centralising rulers of the 'cultural phase',

ready to isolate monks from direct political power and intervene in

their affairs at will.122 A familiar corollary of this is that the Sangha
was finally endowed with an organisational structure akin to that of
the body politic, being answerable to the authority of the mahasvami
(later sangharajas) whose position was similar to the mahasangharajas of

seventeenth-century mainland Southeast Asia.

Even here however, it is easy enough to blur the outlines. There has
been controversy, for example between Tambiah and Carrithers, over

just how radical Parakramabahu I's approach was.123 There certainly

was ample precedent for the 'traditional role', as Gunawardana

describes it, of purifying the Sangha, a royal prerogative exercised by

many kings from the sixth to tenth centuries.124 Equally, it is doubtful

whether an effective organisational hierarchy was maintained

throughout the subsequent disintegrations of central authority.
Tambiah has argued that it was subject to the same tendency towards
fragmentation as the galactic polity.125 What did remain throughout
the following centuries was the principle that the Sangha was always
subject to the interventions of rulers. This meant setting up festivals

for higher ordination (upasampada) , purging the order of corrupt

or incompetent monks, overseeing the maintenance of monastic
regulations (vinaya), directing the production of texts, and so on. In the
thirteenth century, for example, an influential set of monastic rules
120 Ilangasinha 1992: 55; Tambiah 1976: 176. This does not mean that all

subscribed to a shared understanding of Buddhism thereafter, and other sorts of

fissures among the Sangha developed.
Ul Gunawardana 1979: 313-337.
122 Reynolds and Hallisey 1989: 17; Smith 1978: 126, 131.
123 Tambiah 1987: 206-209; Garrithers 1987: 167.
U4 Gunawardana 1979: 315, 317.
125 Tambiah 1 976. In the thirteenth century there is a reference to a Sasananusasaka,

'head of the Buddhist order', and over subsequent centuries there were a number of
hierarchs with sufficient authority to act as secular power brokers: Liyanagamage

1968: 92; Kulasuriya 1976: 148; Ilangasinha 1992: 105, 10-11.

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were drawn up under Parakramabahu II and recorded in the Dambadeni

Katikavata}^ In the subsequent periods of weakened central rule,

high-ranking noble families took it upon themselves to discharge these

regulatory and patronage functions.127 The upturn of the fortunes

of Buddhist institutions under Parakramabahu VI in the fifteenth

century is then plausibly represented as a revival or a restoration, a particularly successful execution of very long-standing principles of royal
conduct. The surviving records of katikavata (or vinaya rules) issued in
his reign, for example, follow the Dambadeni Katikavata closely.128

Parakramabahu VI appears to be an exemplary early modern

monarch by virtue of the manner in which he oversaw the vigorous
promotion of Theravada Buddhism: grand monastic centres flourished
again (without reaching a point of financial advantage that threatened
to undermine royal revenue), an ascetic or other-worldly-oriented fraternity vanavasi ('forest-dwellers'), was supplemented by the gramavasi
(Village-dwellers') fraternity, which had resident monks in most
sizeable villages.129 Centres of learning, pirivenas, were lavished with
patronage, urged to copy and disseminate texts, and were to be found
offering a range of secular subjects, presumably for lay consumption,
beyond the sophisticated programmes for monastic neophytes.130
Works such as the Saddharmaratnakaraya were commissioned that were
intended to expound the dhamma in a manner accessible to laymen.131
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that his reign is also marked by a
renewed rush of contacts with Southeast Asian Buddhism.132

Yet how innovative or distinctively 'early modern' all this activity

really was, is a matter wide open for debate: much of it had been
established practice for many centuries. And did this yet amount
to a widespread immersion in what Steven Collins has referred to
as the Tali imaginaire', that is, the mental world articulated and
inspired by Pali texts? Collins sees this as an elite ideology that moved
slowly downwards over the second millennium to become a peasant

126 Liyanagamage 1968: 22. The Dambadeni Katikavata was exported to Siam:
Tambiah 1976: 176.
127 Uangasinha 1992: 101-104.
128 Uangasinha 1992: 108-109.
uy G. R. De Silva 1995: 33. Although these two fraternities are known to have
existed since the thirteenth century: Uangasinha 1992: 56.

l6U Uangasinha 1002: 107-108, 142-143.

131 Uangasinha 1992: 12, and see Roberts 2004: 26-27.
z Godakumbura 1966; Raymond 1995.

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religion 'at some point before or during the modern period'.133 It is
in a similar vein that some scholars have referred to the European
Reformation and Counter-Reformation as the 'Christianisation' of

Europe. Of course, in another sense, considering the massive presence

of the Church in the lives of much of the populace in the preceding
one thousand years, it would be peculiar to speak of medieval Europe
as anything other than profoundly Christian.134

The reign of Bhuvanekabahu VI (1469-1477) saw the leading

elder Vidagama Maitreya defending the boundaries of Lankan
Buddhism by pouring scorn on the Brahmanical forms filtering into

all levels of religious practice.135 But the Kotte kings did not align
themselves consistently with calls for a rigid, exclusive orthodoxy.

Anne Blackburn, for example, has eschewed the 'early modern'

periodisation, partly because, even by the eighteenth century, there
had not been 'any attempt to codify the beliefs appropriately Buddhist
to any degree than was customary from at least the twelfth century

onward', and nor is there any real indication that Lankan Buddhists
became more concerned with 'textually oriented forms of Buddhist
practice and identity than they had been since at least the twelfth
and perhaps the fifth century'.136 In one sense the inter-dependent
notions of orthodoxy and heresy are very old parts of the Sinhalese
mental furniture, in that Pali and Sinhala texts have long argued
about what constitutes right or wrong religious thoughts and deeds,
pure or impure traditions and lineages, and are to be found castigating

and abusing classes of opponents, and seeking to draw state power

onto their side. But Blackburn is perhaps more concerned to guard
against the application of any understandings of orthodoxy drawn
from Christian or modern-day contexts.

Indeed it is important to consider that when state power and

Buddhist patronage reach their apogee (when the galactic polity
133 Collins 1998: 566. Collins' definition of 'Pali imaginaire' (see particularly,
p. 77) seems to invoke this narrow sense, but at other times it seems to function as an
equivalent to Theravda Buddhism per se, e.g. pp. 564-565, where its transformation
into a popular religion is referred to.
134 Lieberman's vision is usually one from the centre. From the perspective of the

village, one might emphasise how, even late in early modern mainland Southeast

Asia, the process of localisation transformed Buddhism according to the principles of

the local spirit cults. My thanks to John Holt (personal communication Nov. 2006)
for this point. Perhaps a comparison of the resistance of such popular local structures
in Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia would be instructive here.

135 Ilangasinha 1992: 23.

1Jb Blackburn 2001: 17.

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pulsated to its 'strongest' extent in Tambiah's terms), in the reigns of
Parakramabahu I and VI, we also find religious and cultural pluralism.
The Polonnaruva civilization which gave rise to the pivotal localisation
of Buddhism, was also more open to the riches of Sanskrit tradition, to

the aesthetics of Mahayana, to Brahmanic visions of sacred kingship

than its Anuradhapura predecessor.137 And we have now remarked
many times on how the revival of institutional Buddhism under
Parakramabahu VI coincided with an increasingly open and eclectic
interest in other spiritual and aesthetic forms. Indeed the story of
the thirteenth-to-sixteenth centuries could equally be written as an
opening out to external religious and literary influences; current
historiography emphasises 'Hinduisation' rather then the onward
march of orthodoxy. That is, to adjust terms I have used elsewhere,
boundaries were being endowed with rich significance just as they
were being constantly traversed.138 It is thus an enduring feature of

Sri Lankan history that the sustained exposure to Indian or Hindu

domination provoked both oppositional or exclusivist discourses as
well as syncretic and inclusivist practices. The same insight has been
observed in the relationship between Sinhala literary production and
the great world of Sanskrit literature.139 We know little about the
extent to which Hindu cults were patronised by indigenous Sinhalese
or on what terms. But it would be fair to describe Kotte - like

Polonnaruva - as a state tolerating, even embracing many religious

forms, while yet retaining a hegemonic position for Buddhism as the

state-sanctioned religion par excellence.

Lieberman does not attempt to force the development of Buddhism

too neatly into the patterned advancements of his administrative

cycles: its fortunes were less convulsive. Yet Sri Lanka arguably
stands even outside this capacious modelling, insofar as that it
makes little sense to see Polonnaruva, so redolent of the 'charter'
civilizations of Southeast Asia in many other respects, as espousing a
rarefied Buddhism of the courts and urban elites that left the masses

untouched, or to have entertained an essentially lassez-faire attitude to

137 Smith 1978, pp. 1 19-120, 137-139; Gunawardana 1979: 162-163; Holt 2004:

Strathern 2004, 2005. Note that even today when a form of Buddhist

fundamentalism at it height, supernatural business in Colombo reveals a tremendous

appetite for new and exotic forms: Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988.
139 Hallisey 2003: 697: 'elites in medieval Sri Lanka simultaneously participated
in and resisted absorption in "the Sanskrit comsopolis" '; and the theme runs through

Holt 2004.

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matters of doctrinal correctness, monastic discipline and organisation.

This is one reason why the history of Sri Lankan Buddhism over
the second millennium does not take on a progressive or teleological
character, and why the chronicle tropes of decline and revival, or the
structuralist conceits of oscillations over the longe dure - apparently so
suspect in their ahistorical patterning - yet retain some appeal.140

The European Interruption

For all that Lieberman's sites of progressive cohesion may be

'protected' regions they are very far from secluded: that would be to fly
in the face of the burgeoning scholarship revealing the early modern
period as an epoch of intensifying communication, seafaring exploits,

ambitious commercial networks, economic trends that transcended

local or regional particularities, the virus-like spread of certain ideas
and fashions, the rapid diffusion of socially-explosive technologies such

as firearms, the circulation of mobile elites and specialists happy

to ply their trade in the port cities springing up all around the
Indian ocean. This is the world that Christopher Bayly evokes with
his phrase 'archaic globalisation'.141 Subrahmanyam too has heralded
these connective forces as the defining feature of early modern world,
and sees them reflected in the new regimes of sixteenth-century Asia
which were characterised by a multi-ethnic open elite organisation.142
Lieberman has therefore been concerned to evoke elite

cosmopolitanism as a mildly paradoxical concomitant of ethnic

solidification. If we refer back to the composite sketch of the fifteenth

or sixteenth-century Theravada state presented earlier, it is easy

to see the internal drivers promoting the embrace of these early
modern energies.143 The perennial competition for manpower with
140 See the criticisms of Tambiah by Keyes and others in Contributions to Indian
Sociology 1987. If early modern Southeast Asian chronicles apply the sense of timeless
antiquity fictitiously or anachronistically to their own distant pasts (for e.g. Charney

1999: 51), one wonders if this is because they have adopted a Lankan genre that is
genuinely ancient?
141 Bayly 2004: 42.

^ Subrahmanyam 1990; Subrahmanyam 20050: passim, particularly 101-99.

Albeit issuing from a quite different perspective, Tambiah has also been
concerned to build this feature into his picture of the galactic polity, which succeeds in
combining a continuity of political and spiritual tradition with a capacity for drawing

in diverse groups - linguistic, ethnic, religious, lineage-based - to dwell under its

umbrella. Also see Nissan and Stirrat 1990.

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rival kingdoms would have been a powerful reason to incorporate
foreign groups, particularly those that offered specialist military
assistance. This would have become an almost irresistible option when
the survival of the kingdom was at stake. Moreover many of these were

governmental systems that allowed little institutional expression of

political pluralism; if kings had allies it helped if their provenance

denied them a permanent role in the polity or if they could be

found outside of the indigenous interest groups that might threaten
sovereign authority.144 Foreigners placed under the direct control of

the king, whether they were Chinese captains, Portuguese gunners,

Brahmin ritual experts, Malay merchants or Japanese Christian

bodyguards, would have formed a valuable counter to the perennial
pretensions of the native nobility.145

These small colonies of maritime groups bestowed cultural capital

too, opening up diplomatic exchanges with far-off glamorous powers,
and exuding all the power of the exotic: having extensive dealings with
such foreigners was a mark of greatness.146 So during the sixteenth
century most kingdoms had important foreign groups residing at their
capital cities, with those of Ayudhaya and Cambodia perhaps the most

cosmopolitan, Burma somewhat less so.147 Arakan (or Mrauk-U), a

lesser power which is not considered one of the chief mainland states
in Lieberman's theory, was notably cosmopolitan and best exemplifies
in its Islamicisation the willingness to adopt the aesthetics of foreign

Beyond these Theravada states, this was also the way of things

in much of the rest of the Indie world into which the monotheistic

mercantile-military groups sailed. It is hardly surprising then that

some rulers - the most beleaguered or the most opportunistic -

became increasingly reliant on these groups, sometimes to the extent

of alienating themselves from indigenous sources of power. When a

coastal centre is weak it will scavenge strength from the seas. In this
light, the behaviour of the kings of Kotte from 1513 onwards is seen
to be entirely typical, approaching the Portuguese as both a means of
salvation from the designs of their rivals and an irresistible tool for
their own ambitions. The king's personal guard had long been entrusted to foreigners; it now switched from South Indians to Portuguese.

144 Reid 1988-1993: ii. 262.

ltt Reid 1988-1993: 11. 25b.
146 Reid 1988-1993: ii. 234.
147 Lieberman 2003: 292.

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Just as Buddhist Kotte had been rather Hinduised up to that point,
now Portuguese culture too was welcomed and Christianity at least
patronised. Indeed, even when the Portuguese became identified as
enemies, 'elite cosmopolitanism' ensured that their aesthetics would
remain in vogue into seventeenth century, helping to fashion the court

of their foe Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy (1591-1604).

But when does cosmopolitanism become a bridgehead for

imperialism? On whose terms would these foreign groups reside? In

mainland Southeast Asia they were normally harnessed to indigenous
advantage, only occasionally presenting a threat at moments of crisis.

They were more likely to hasten the centralisation of authority,

providing armies with a new cutting edge, building and manning fleets
and bringing lucrative world trade to its ports.148 We could take the

Toungoo king Tabinshweihti (1531-1551) of Burma as an example,

whose military success owed so much to the shock value of his guntoting Portuguese mercenaries.149 No king there was subjected to the
indignities of vassalage.

It was during the rein of Bhuvanekabahu VII (1521-1551), king of

Kotte and nominal overlord of Sri Lanka, that the Portuguese came
to dominate Lankan politics. The successes of a Tabinshweihti were
no doubt the stuff of Bhuvanekabahu's dreams as he pursued his
alliance with the Portuguese, but in his case the conjuncture turned
against him, fatally undermining the authority of Kotte. From early

on Portuguese showed themselves unwilling to be just one part of a

multi-ethnic community under local rule. For all Bhuvanekabahu's
diplomatic manoeuvres, they would not be incorporated on any terms

but their own. What lies behind this divergence with the Southeast
Asian experience? Lieberman tells us that, 'by and large, the chief
mainland states were too removed from the chief sea-routes, too
immune to naval pressures, and too well integrated to exhibit the same
sensitivity to European pressure as their archipelagic counterparts'.150
As we have remarked, as a general explanation it makes sense simply
to see Sri Lanka an honorary member of the archipelago. The matter

of political integration is also highly germane, but here we need

to introduce an important qualification, one that derives from a
148 Expansionary Arakan presents as good example as any, with its enthusiastic
policy of welcoming Portuguese and Islamic fighters to form a body of troops at the

king's permanent disposal: Leider 1999.

149 Reid 1988-1993: ii. 224; Lieberman 2003: 152. Interestingly, Tabinshweithi
was assassinated in the same year as Bhuvanekabahu.
150 Lieberman 2003: 20.

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pulsating rather than progressive vision of the galactic polity. For
if the Portuguese had arrived in the 1460s they would have found
Kotte pulsating into its 'strong form', with Parakramabahu VTs grip
probably too tight to be released by the machinations of a few dozen
Portuguese. Instead they arrived at a time when centrifugal pressures
would concentrate their impact.

In some ways Kotte had the worst of both the archipelagic and
mainland worlds. It belonged, analogically, to the latter in that it
seems to have derived the bulk of its revenue from the command

of agriculture rather than commerce.151 Commerce was obviously

important to Kotte - indeed had determined its coastal location - yet
the trade in the most profitable goods was left largely in the hands of
foreign merchant groups.152 In this it might bear some comparison to
Mon and Toungoo Burma, but it does seem as if Kotte remained at the
undeveloped end of the spectrum of early modern commercialisation:
even Pegu appears to have been a more flourishing commercial centre,

and one protected by its own navy.153 While there was clear intent
to exploit the value of cinnamon, neither Parakramabahu VI nor
any of his successors had the maritime ambitions of his illustrious
twelfth-century namesake. Yet neither could the sixteenth century
kings of Kotte draw on a reservoir of agricultural resources of similar
magnitude to their counterparts in Burma or Ayudhya. Indeed, some
parts of the island were rice-deficient, and the island as a whole was a
net importer of rice.154 This dependency was a useful leverage for the
Portuguese patrolling the Sea of Ceylon.155

What Sri Lanka did have in common with many Southeast Asian
islands was an attractive high-value crop, cinnamon, and a location
in the middle of 'chief sea-routes'. It was this that earmarked it as

one of the bases of the first real programme of empire as envisaged by

Afonso de Albuquerque.156 Sri Lanka was also much closer to the heart

151 C. R. De Silva 1995: 60, estimates that even a fairly generous estimate would
render trade accountable for less than 25% of royal receipts.
152 Sri Lanka exported cinnamon, gemstones, elephants, sandalwood and its trees
were useful for the ship-building industry. Flores 1998: 90-95; C. R. de Silva 1990;
Kiribamune 1987; Kulasuriya 1978: 150. Queyroz: 318, gives interesting information
on the dues available from ports in Kotte.

153 Guedes 1994: 42; See also Subrahmanyam 2005a: 67 on the mercantilism of

Toungoo Burma.
154 C. R. De Silva 1995: 50, explains this issue skillfully.
155 Flores 1995.
l Thus its vassalage (as opposed to alliance) was insisted upon and it received a
fortress in 1518 (which was soon dismantled however).

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of the Estado da India in Goa and was a more plausible candidate for
imperial surveillance than the far-off lands of the shadow empire in
the Bay of Bengal and beyond. In mainland Southeast Asia, by contrast,

communities of private Portuguese were allowed to bed down under

local authority. Arakan is a good example to turn to here, as a smallish

state with a large and unruly settlement of Portuguese enjoying

substantial autonomy from Goa. The Arakanese rulers struggled but
ultimately succeeded in keeping a grip of the reins. The Portuguese
could certainly pose a threat, most notably when they allied with the
sub-king of Chatigo in the early seventeenth century. But the telling

point here is that the Portuguese revolt was crushed without any
reprisal from Goa. And the Portuguese at Siriam were useful at other
times as a counter-balance to regional pretenders.157
In the 1590s, the Portuguese in Sri Lanka abandoned their policy of
indirect rule for one of major territorial conquest. We cannot embark
here on the reasons behind this move, almost unique in the Portuguese

East, but it can be seen in the light of a broader conjuncture of the

Portuguese diaspora in the 1590s, in which ambitious frontiersmen
dispatched schemes for the conquest of lands in Southeast and East

Asia to the imperial centre. The Union of Crowns (1580-1640)

with the Habsburg dynasty must be relevant here, as Castilian
conquistadorism exerted a greater appeal. 158 The difference, of course,
is that such arguments issuing from mainland Southeast Asia and the
far east were generally ignored or allowed to issue in poorly-supported
expeditions. In Sri Lanka the same conjuncture bore fruit in the rapid
subjugation of the lowlands.159

The Road not Taken? Some Notes on 1600-1800

Meanwhile in Lieberman's mainland Southeast Asia, the new states

that arose out of the late sixteenth-century collapse would succeed
in establishing a more thoroughgoing centralisation of power and
integration of society: this heralded the shift to Pattern C govern-

157 Charney 1998: 16.

nb And the conquest models of the Philippines and Brazil: Flores 2001: 10;
Subrahmanyan 1990: 138-147, 20050: 198; Rubies 2003: 423; Boxer 1969: 121,
125; Biedermann 2005: 447-504.

ny One factor here is simply legal: Dharmapala's startling bequest of his kingdom
to the Portuguese crown in 1580.

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mental types.160 In Burma this is represented by the administrative
differences between the Toungoo empire and its successor state (the
Restored Toungoo empire) based in the inland centre of Ava. Whereas

Bayinnaung had governed the regions through closes relatives who

replicated the insignias and rituals of kingship, Anaukhpetlun (160628), and Thalun (1629-48) moved to replace these bayin with lowerranking governors, who were in turn supervised by spies and other
central appointments.161 And in Siam, King Naresuan the Great
(1590-1605), managed to effect institutional reforms that had been
suspended in the realm of theory since the fifteenth century.162

What happened in Sri Lanka? Since we are at risk here of

becoming overwhelmed by the imagery of trajectories and alphabetic
sequencing, it may be profitable to give contingency its due and first

of all briefly consider what might have happened. If Rajasinha I

(1581-1593) had been able to take Colombo - as he came so close
to doing - he may have been able to consolidate his sovereignty over
the island and wrench his state onto a path towards something
like Pattern C. He certainly had the dynamism and opportunism.

The Sitavakan forces were quick to seize on the possibilities of

Muslim and European firearms - these certainly played a role in
their expansionary success.163 Rajasinha also successfully reached
out beyond the island by attempting to attract mercenaries from
South India and elsewhere.164 Most significant is his development
of a navy, for which he drew on the expertise of Calicut and Aceh,
and which became a real threat in the 1570s and 1580s.165 Moreover,
his commercial aspirations are certainly apparent in his control over
160 On seventeenth-century centralisation see Andaya lQQQ: 84.

161 Reid 1988-1993: ii. 261; Lieberman 2003: 154-164, 179-181 on the shift to

Pattern G in Burma.

162 Which had been elaborated by King Trailokanat (r. 1448-1488), Ishii 1993:
181-186. On King Naresuan's, reforms see: Reid 1988-1993: ii. 261; Reid 1993: 186;
Lieberman 2003: 271, 277-281, 337. They include obliging senior princes to remain
at capital, appointing triennial governors by 1687, increase of royal servicemen,
inflation of the king's royal persona, the fact that the succession was normally settled at
Ayudhaya itself through factional contests in which ministers exerted major influence.

163 See Queyroz 1992: 99. Sitavakan forces were using firearms by the 1530s and
regularly so by the 1 560s. On the history of firearms in Sri Lanka, see Wickremesekera
2004: 92-94.

IO* See Gouto 1993: 339, 290-291, on the use 01 Javanese, Kaffir and renegade
Portuguese mercenaries in the 1587 siege of Colombo.
1DJ C R. de Silva 1995: 97; Cunha-Rivara 1057-1077: 210-217; and see
Alessandro Valignano's comment (Perniola 1989-1991: ii. 72) in 1575 that Rajasinha
'has a more powerful fleet than we have' in the Sea of Ceylon.

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the collection and trade of cinnamon. He was perhaps the first
Lankan ruler to truly exploit its revenue potential; and this is another
authentic marker of 'early modernity'.166 That the sea was becoming
an important focus of activity for Rajasinha is indicated by Portuguese
plans for a navigational blockade of the island 1587-1 589. 167

Yet by this time, Rajasinha's willingness to provide tribute in

exchange for gifts suggests that his maritime resources could be
effectively neutered by such tactics. Sitavaka was always at risk of
being isolated from the outside sources of strength whether they
be the profits from diverse types of trade, the harbouring of large
bodies of private foreign military specialists, or the availability of
foreign models of administrative reform. We know little about his
governmental programme; what stands out most from our sources is

a polity directed largely towards war. In short, it was always more

plausible that economic and political power would remain sundered
as Lieberman suggests it was for island southeast Asia.168

And indeed this was roughly the predicament of the only real
candidate for Pattern C status, the Kingdom of Kandy whose rebirth
came right on schedule in the first years of the seventeenth century. By
this time the Portuguese were in command of the whole of the lowlands
and the great bulk of the cinnamon trade. Kandy might be imagined

at this point to be a 'protected' enclave - by virtue of the highland

fastness at its core - in the centre of an otherwise unprotected island.

I shall leave it for others to ascertain whether resurrected Kandy

departs from its analogues by essentially reverting to traditional
governmental strategies or whether it came to exhibit the integrative

innovations of Pattern C. We might just begin the task with the

following notes: in the seventeenth century, Kandy's administrative
system appears to have attained impressive centralisation under the
strong rule of Rajasinha II (1635-1687) - yet we ought to remember
that this was a dominion not so much expanded beyond its core
territories.169 By the eighteenth century, however, historiographical

166 G. R. de Silva 1995: 92. Recently, C. R. De Silva (2007) has suggested that the
evidence on whether Portuguese intervention gave rise to an 'early modern state' form
in Sri Lanka is scanty, but does point to 'some evidence of the growth of a standing
army with related pressures for a more efficient collection of revenue'.

167 Biedermann 2005: Chapter Six. See Queyroz, pp. 425, 429, 440; Couto 1993:
266, for signs of Sitavakan promotion of maritime trade and overseas diplomacy.

168 Lieberman: 1997: 545.

Goonewardena 1977: 10, 12 (this is perhaps why footnote 36, has it that the
'galactic polity' of Tambiah 1976 did not exist!).

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summations start to sound undeniably familiar. John Rogers has
recently written that 'the general trend within Kandy in the eighteenth

century was towards greater political and ritual integration of the

kingdom's population

to the reconstruction of Kandyan Buddhism in mid-century, which

resulted in

The Kandyan kings, in common with their illustrious counterparts

in mainland Southeast Asia, sought to attract foreign elites and were

quite able to play the various monotheistic groups off one another.
Again, the re-founder of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya I (1594-1604)
affords an excellent illustration of the transferral of 'early modern'
skills, for his military apprenticeship was spent fighting for the
Portuguese under the baptismal name of Dom Joao d'Austria. When
he assumed power in Kandy, he fortified the city, formalised the use

and manufacture of firearms and sought alliances with the Dutch

in an attempt to blockade Portuguese-held ports.171 All this is true
enough, but over time Kandy would suffer greatly from its isolation,

its inability to develop a naval presence and to glean profits from

seaborne commerce.172

In its re-affirmation of Theravada Buddhism under the auspices of

Vimaladharmasuriya, Kandy certainly had much in common with new
dynasties in seventeenth-century Burma, Siam and the other protected

rimlands, with their intent to 'restore a cosmically sanctioned

hierarchy' after the 'excessive mobility' and chaotic bloodshed

of preceding decades.173 Further comparisons suggest themselves

between the elevation of the person of the king above the intimacies

of normal intercourse in seventeenth and eighteenth-century

170 Rogers 2004^: 57.
bee van apilbergen 1997: 39-40, which includes descriptions 01 Kandy as a
prosperous and well-populated town, with ambitious building projects. Extrapolating
from data given by the Portuguese captain Sa de Miranda in the 1630s, Jorge Flores
2001 : 56, estimates the population of Kandy as a state as about 1 1 2,000, (or, including

all its dependent regions, perhaps 220,000) but emphasises that it was rather unurbanised. The city itself may have had a population of something like 10,000 and was
confined - or had been reduced by the 'scorched-earth' invasions of the Portuguese to its political, religious and military functions.
lu One means of circumnavigating this obstacle was to become a haven for Muslim
traders expelled from the lowlands: see Dewaraja 2005.
173 Lieberman 1997: 529. Incidentally, in the interests of 'connected history', there
are intriguing similarities between the arguments the Portuguese deployed against
Vimaladharmasuriya (for example, that it was legitimate to depose him because he
was a tyrant and foe of Christianity) and the characterisation of the 'Black King' of
Siam, Naresuan.

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Kandy and representation of kingship during the height of royal
absolutism in Ayudhya. The Kandyan period also provides us with
the best evidence for the creation of a religious moral community
with the king at its centre; a whole people, that is, with a stake in
the religious efficacy and propriety of the monarch.174 What requires
much greater analysis is the extent to which all this represents a real
transformation from the Kotte period.
It is in the sphere of the monastic institutions that the disruptive
consequences of colonial activity are unmistakeable. This is why if we

were to adopt a teleological language and judge Sri Lankan Buddhism

by the progress of its peers in mainland Southeast Asia, it might appear
slow-to-develop as well as remarkably precocious. The political context

was hardly conducive to the progressive strengthening of monastic

organisation; indeed it is possible that from roughly the mid-sixteenth
century until the introduction of the Siam Nikaya in the eighteenth

century the Sangha had no effective and comprehensive centralised

hierarchy at all.175 Let us be wary of assuming that this administrative
disintegration would have fatally undermined the moral authority of
monks, their relationship with village society, or even the persistence

of Buddhist patterns of thought and behaviour. In 1638, after many

war-ravaged decades in which institutional Buddhism was attacked
throughout much of the country, we yet find a hostile Portuguese
soldier reporting on the respect for and discipline of the ganinnanses
(unordained monks).176 Buddhist monasticism was not engineered to
approximate the autonomous secular-style efficiency of the Christian

Church. Tambiah has famously argued that if secular and spiritual

authority did find a meeting-point, it was in the person of the king,
who provided Buddhism with its sense of leadership and cohesion.177

Nevertheless, for large periods of the sixteenth and seventeenth

centuries, the kings of Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy found it difficult to
advance and develop that role. The decline of monastic institutions and
the regular collapse of higher ordination lineages have been discussed

often enough. Naturally, education suffered too as Buddhist textual

174 On the Asala Perahara, in which all levels of society were represented, see
Senevirtane 1978: 111-112.
This is what Blackburn 2001: 36 suggests.
176 Flores 2001: 183. Also see C. R. De Silva 1998: 106, for some insights into the
funding of Buddhist institutions into the seventeenth century.

Tambiah 1976. Obeyesekere 1979: 628-629, comments that institutional

divisions had 'very little effect on lay religiosity and hardly affected the cultural

unity of Buddhism' represented in the figure of the ruler.

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production diminished and the large pirivenas fell out of view, along
with any signs of a comprehensive curriculum.178 This is then quite
contrary to the trend in the 'Pattern C states of Southeast Asia towards

such procedures as centrally-regulated examinations for the Sangha at least until the arrival in mid-eighteenth-century Sri Lanka of the
Siam Nikaya from Ayuddhya.179 'Connectedness' would ensure that
the hiatus of development was overcome at this point, and Sri Lankan
Buddhism once more assumed a more obvious place within the larger
flow of Theravadin history.

If we were to conclude from all this that Sri Lanka appears in

this way as something of a victim of the early modern conjuncture,
its inhabitants were certainly not about to quietly adopt that role
themselves. The most sustained and ambitious territorial endeavour of

Iberian colonialism in Asia (with perhaps only the Philippines bearing

comparison) produced also some of the most recalcitrant resistance.

First, in mid sixteenth-century Sitavaka, and then certainly during
the low country rebellions and hill-country resistance of the 1590s
onwards, we see the result of sustained warfare with outsiders in
an enhanced and politicised indigenist or ethnic consciousness.180
This is one of the key developments that Lieberman highlights in
his schema for the protected rimlands.181 The Portuguese and Dutch
were, of course, highly obvious outsiders, and all who rejected their
dominion could and sometimes did regroup around Kandy. Moreover,
the symbolism of cultural and religious antagonism became an integral

part of rebel campaigns and sometimes Kandyan propaganda too.182

Thus at the same time that we see in the northern end of exposed
South Asia a certain limited commingling of political and religious
antipathy as a result of Islamic conquests, at the southern end of the
178 Blackburn 2001: 42-45. Lay literacy probably remained low until the

nineteenth century, as Blackburn 2001: 19, comments.

179 Nevertheless, it is interesting that the reintroduction of higher ordination by
the Siam Nikaya had to be construed in terms oflocal traditions, harking back to very
old lineages of forest monks, in order to be seen as legitimate: Blackburn 2003. In
the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the unity of the Sangha was called into
question by caste rivalry (thanks to Michael Roberts for reminding me of this).
180 Roberts 2004; Strathern 2005, and, for detail, 20070. It should be cautioned
that the indigenous evidence is sparse, the strongest being confined to the hatana or

war-poem genre. For a contrary view, see Rogers 20040, which sees the 'political'
Sinhala identity before the nineteenth century as incapable of arousing meaningful
solidarity between different castes and classes.

181 Lieberman 2003: 40-43, 59; Myint-U 2001: 83-93.

182 Although after Vimaladharmasuriya there was a reversion to a more traditional

religious tolerance.

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region - Sri Lanka now having become part of this exposed zone - we
find the same effect produced by Christian imperialism.183

By the time Queirs was writing his retrospective late in the

seventeenth century it seemed to him that the Sinhalese 'in obeying
their native Kings they have always been various and inconstant, but
most stubborn in not admitting foreign domination, and when the
Portuguese entered Ceylon . . . they did not hesitate to submit to any
bold rebel, in order to recover their liberty3.184 Portuguese writers of
the seventeenth century simply present the Sinhalese as a distinct
people (nao) with particular national characteristics and an origin
myth (for both kings and commoners) in the Vijaya story.185 Whether
or not Kandy ever shifted into a genuine Pattern C state, a certain
king-centred patriotism can certainly be glimpsed.

Conclusion: Further Comparative Angles

The majority of this paper was written using mainland Southeast Asia
as a comparative foil. From that perspective, it is the particular kinship

of Lankan kingdoms with the states of this region that is striking.

Even after 1500 Sri Lanka continues to be analogous to mainland
Southeast Asia in terms of its basic religio-political matrix, just as it
becomes analogous to island Southeast Asia in terms of its geopolitical
predicament. And what, after the monotheistic interruption got under
way, did this ultimately result in? A future that also looked both ways:
before the final coup de grce by the British it was allowed much less

opportunity to develop the kinds of indigenous political integration

and economic development that we see in the Pattern C and D

183 Qn reiigjous violence, see Strathern 2007a, Chapter Ten and Conclusion.

Compare with the discussion of Islam-Hindu relations in Lieberman (MSS), which of

course begins by acknowledging that Islam was far more successful than Christianity

at accommodating to Hinduism, and there were very strong geopolitical reasons

in the subcontinent why such accommodation (and thus a partial dealignment of
religious and political structures) was necessary. Nevertheless our Lankan material
also suggests that pre-modern Indie inclusivity and syncretism were no bars to a

certain kind of communal violence.

im And 'their greatest occupation is soldiering, and they enjoy peace only as an
accident, and war is the custom', Queyroz 1992: 21-23.
lbD See Strathern 20070: Chapter Ten and Conclusion, which also discusses the
reliability of Portuguese mediation. One doubts whether this role of the Vijaya myth
was a product of the Portuguese period itself. See the Simhavalli Kathava (Nevill: Or.
6611(204), in Somadasa 1987-1995), composed between 1480-1500, for the story
of Simhabahu in ballad form.

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polities until the eighteenth century, but it was ultimately able to

resist the religious transformation. However cleverly maintained by
the Oratorian mission, with the waning of Portuguese power there was

little chance that the majority of Sinhalese would become a Catholic

people, and as for Dutch and British Protestantism, that withdrew
leaving barely a trace. The antiquity and entrenchment of Sri Lanka's
Buddhist traditions would see to that.186
However, in the broader Eurasian perspective that will be developed

in Lieberman's forthcoming work, island and mainland Southeast

Asia are presented as forming a single zone of 'protected rimlands5
before 1500, following a roughly comparable chronology.187 It is only

after 1500 that the archipelagic region is forced down a different

historical path by the arrival of newly successful seafaring groups.
From this viewpoint it is quite clear that Sri Lanka follows the same
historical logic as island Southeast Asia.188 In both areas the sixteenth

century saw an intensification of competition which produced some

indigenous polities more than capable of repelling European advances,
but thereafter serious territorial inroads were made nonetheless. It

is only that in the archipelago the Dutch would become the major
conquest elite, while in Sri Lanka the Portuguese would institute
a rare policy of conquest. If we wanted to single out one island in
particular, perhaps the most fruitful analogy here would be Java, whose
people were culturally closest to the mainland states by virtue of their

sustained Indianisation, and which also had a tradition of all-island

overlordship and a sense of territorial distinctiveness.189

Before 1500, then, we could think of Sri Lanka as an honorary

protected rimland - if the only one from the southern limit of Eurasia,

with the rest bunched along the eastern and western extremities.
186 On the broader question of such 'transcendentalist intransigence' see Strathern


187 Lieberman (forthcoming).

188 One can see the fact that Sri Lanka became more dependent on imported rice
(see above) as a further indicator of its shift towards an island Southeast Asian model.

189 Andaya 1999: 74; Reid 1988-1993: ii. 17; Pollock 1998: 53 (Java appears here
an exemplary case of a Sanskritised culture 'vernacularising' at the beginning of
the second millennium). Yet Java's exposure to Muslim power in the first instance
and then the forces of Dutch and British imperialism, combined with a stubbornly
fragmentary political system (sustained by its awkward internal geography) meant
that no one political centre was able to extend its reach over the whole island or
maintain stability for long (Carey 1997; Lieberman 1997a: 457-458). Disintegration
rather than integration was the result. Again, much of this sounds familiar. But Kotte
and its successor states had much stronger traditions of administrative rule to draw
on, not to mention a more resilient and fundamental enshrinement of Indie culture.

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The only major difference between Sri Lanka and the other protected
rimlands in this phase remains the very early flourishing of civilization
in the northern zone and the subsequent striking sense of continuity

dating back to that time. For Anuradhapura has to be seen as the

charter state, of which Polonnaruva was merely a reformulation. What
analogies can we find here? Sri Lanka's chronology bears some comparison with China, if one is tempted to make Anuradhapura the equival-

ent of the Chinese 'charter' period, the Han (third century BC), and
Polonnaruva equivalent to the second period of imperial unity, the
Song (960-1 279). 190 Of course, the analogy quickly runs aground if
one is concerned with the respective extents of land and population
brought under political unity, or what 'unity' actually entailed in
administrative terms, to mention only a couple of many points of

1 Q1

It should have become clear that Lieberman's model offers an

exceptionally fertile means of thinking about national and regional

histories in a new light, and I suspect it will be useful for the reframing

of much grander historiographies than Sri Lanka. But can we refine

Lieberman's categorisations at all? If we leave to one side Sri Lanka's
unusual civilizational precocity, one might be able to pursue a subcategory of 'island rimlands'.192 This immediately raises the question

of the comparability of Britain and Sri Lanka. Both seem to be

protected in a rather distinctive way before 1500, that is to say, they

were not distant enough from the mainland for the sea to form an
insuperable barrier - therefore there were more than enough threats

from outside (Danes, Normans, French for Britain; Colas, Pandyas

etc for Lanka) for a profound sense of alterity to develop. But the
sea lent these islands enough protection to ensure that indigenous
polities would always have a redoubt from which they could reemerge and eventually assimilate the conquerors. Moreover the size of

these islands maybe significant: large enough to generate reasonably

powerful polities, but small and compact enough to allow for the rapid
diffusion of ideas and institutions. I hope to explore at another time

the coincidence by which in the mid-first millennium both islands

190 Lieberman 1997: 538-546. Lieberman concluded his 1997 article by suggesting
that the 'protected rimlands' could in turn be seen as occupying a place in the middle
of a larger continuum, one end of which is held up by the daunting antiquity and
monolithism of China ('an earlier and more stable pattern').

191 Lieberman 1997: 539.

192 Lieberman's forthcoming work does not look at Britain/England, taking France
as representative of Western European protected rimlands.

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produced a text (or textual tradition) that offered a certain localisation
of religion conveyed through the vehicle of a universal language, which
could serve as a blueprint for subsequent imagery of a chosen sacred
people and land - Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and
Sri Lanka's Mahavamsa.193 Both then saw early vernacularisation.194

From 1500, the sea shifts more from a military barrier (to both
invasion from without and expansion from within) to a military
conduit. In England this conjuncture presented an opportunity, as it
would soon be able to expand its influence in the outside world. And in
Sri Lanka, lacking a navy and politically fractured, it became a threat.

One is tempted to see how well Japan would fare in this category,
given that these three islands are moored off the western, southern
and eastern coasts of the Eurasian landmass.195 If Japan was by far
the most protected of these islands, Sri Lanka was the least. Combine
this with Sri Lanka's inheritance of the Indie system of hierarchical
kingship (a.k.a. 'nested sovereignty', 'galactic polities'), and it is clear
why all-island unity was comparatively rarely achieved in Sri Lanka
and why it was not in a position to take advantage of the post- 1500
What did result, however, was a sense of continuity, both subjectively

and objectively considered, that it is difficult to find parallels for

elsewhere in South Asia. Indeed, if this paper began by referring to
the - on the face of it, bizarre - fact that Sri Lanka can often seem
moored in an entirely separate side-water from the main currents
of South Asian historiography, we can end by restoring some sense
to that fact. This is, of course, not to deny the massive influence of
India, particularly South India, on Lankan history. But it is not simply
193 The Mahavamsa is usually attributed to the fifth century AD, while Bede's work

belongs to the early eighth century. If it seems incautious to wave a flag for future
research in this way, I can at least report that this paper is in some ways an extended
reply to a question which I raised for myself in Modern Asian Studies some time ago
(Strathern 2005) about the comparability of mainland Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka's
second millennium.

194 If one can compare King Alfred's (8489-899) translation project with the

chronology of the Sinhala script sketched above.

195 Except that Japan's greater distance from the continent seems to have led to
more insularity and therefore less sense of alterity.
0 Hence, even though Sri Lanka can be seen as protected by virtue of the fact

that indigenous rule survived until 1500 (indeed, in the highlands till c. 1800), its

vulnerability from c. 900 is indicated by the fact that the successive political centres

tended to last for shorter periods of time. Anuradhapura remained the principal
centre for c. 1000 years, Polonnaruva for c. 250 years, Kotte for c. 150 years, Sitavaka
for c. 70 years. Then we have, under quite different circumstances, Kandy.

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on linguistic or religious grounds that Sri Lanka seems different.
Rather, Lieberman's model allows us to see how it belonged to a
different category of Eurasian politico-social development. In the rest
of India there were strong geopolitical reasons why religion, ethnicity
and politics would tend to become comparatively detached from each
other.197 Whereas in Sri Lanka, its relatively protected status before

1500 allowed the Sinhalese to develop certain territorial, ethnic

and patriotic ties of affect, that - however apparently undermined
by political polycentricity and the social divisiveness of caste - would
be further enhanced by the experience of European conquest.198

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