A Dream comes through after 60 Years: Professor Perera unveils Ceylon History

by Thilak S. Fernando

Sixty years ago, Professor Lakman Susantha Perera was a modest 'obliterated' graduate from the highest seat of learning in Sri Lanka, the University of Ceylon. He obtained a History Honours Degree (London External) and was awarded the Hilda Obeyseker Fellowship to research on Institutions of Ancient Ceylon from inscriptions.

It was an arduous task in an era especially where the teaching of Sinhala was not a priority under the Colonial rule, and to master the language of ancient Sinhala inscriptions as well as the Pali language he had to learn the Brahmi script. By arranging all published and unpublished inscriptions in chronological order he started analysing their contents first and extracted the essence, which took six years of dedicated and hard labour. Laksham Susantha Perera was awarded the PhD Degree, first ever of its kind given by the University of Ceylon, which made him the Permanent lecturer in the Department of History. However, to get his work published ( which ran to well over 1000 pages) took over four decades.

Over the years, Professor Perera's ambition as a patriot to get this valuable piece of history published with a view to disseminating his stored up knowledge to the present generation was marked only by a single word ' rejection' by profit orientated publishers in the county. It was an unfortunate state of affairs and more so as Sudharshan Seneviratne. Prof. Of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya puts it, a clear cut example of " poverty of human values rather than poverty of history".

This gem of history about Ceylon, the only copy which was 'gathering dust' at the University has been regularly used by generation of historians until many of its pages were being reduced to shreds by constant usage. Some who claimed to be 'eminent scholars' have hacked Perera's Volumes as ' their original idea' for personal glory, conveniently forgetting to acknowledge the authorship.

As much as his enthusiasm to complete the study Professor Perera's attempts at publishing and making it known to the world never died. Decades after, while in retirement in London, he approached the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Kandy. Its Executive Director, Prof. K.M. de Silva and Prof. Srima Kiribamune, Senior Research Fellow enjoyed and identified it as a first rate study on vitally imports aspects of the history of Sri Lanka. A silver lining in Professor Perera's ambition began to emerge through dark clouds of many a year .

The laborious task of updating the references to inscriptions used in the text after 50 years and typing of 1500 crumbling and discoloured pages, which could not be scanned, were successfully completed by Prof. Sirima Kiribamabune assisted by Dr. Piyatissa Senanayake of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Peradeniya and Volume 1, (out of three) under the Title " The Institutions of Ancient Ceylon from Inscription (from the 3rd century BC to 830 AD) was released to the public in July 2001 at the Jayawardena Centre in Colombo amidst a distinguished gathering.

Dr. Lorna Dewaraja in her review of the publication states: " In Prof. L. S. Perera's meticulous study he has expressed the life of a society in its political, economic, religious and social aspects and shows that in any society institutions are inter-related and affect each other" . Other eminent Sri Lankan scholars who have already done inspirational reviews of this publication have already revealed that reading through the author's masterly analysis of the earliest inscriptions, one is struck by the fact that they authenticate even in minute details of the Mahavamsa, which has been condemned by some as myth and legend. Not only can outstanding rulers like Devanampiyatissa, Vattagamini and Dutthagami be identified in the inscriptions, they day, but even one of the latter warriors mentioned in the Mahavanmsa, Senapati Nandimitta could be identified with a good deal of accuracy.

Prof. Perera in his thesis has drawn attention to he Vallipuram gold plate which has been the subject of much controversy in recent times. The gold plate has been discovered in 1936 and found with other antiquities in Vallipuram in the Vadamarachchi Division of Jaffna Peninsula, beneath the foundation of an ancient structure on land belong to the Vishnu Temple. Prof. Perera, in his work, shows the gradual process of centralisation of majestic power with the maharaja at Anuradhapura, and the rajas in the periphery, superseded by provincial administrators. The inscription records that in the region of Maharaja Vasaba (67-111 AD), Ameti Isigiriya was governor of Nakadiva of Nagadipa as Jaffna was then known. The author concludes that sovereign power had extended to the Jaffna Peninsula which was therefore a province under the maharaja of Anuradhapura. The script and language of the inscription happen to be the same as those found in Vasabha's inscription elsewhere in the Island.

Tamil Inscriptions
Though the Mahavamsa refers to many Tamil invasions and migrations, very little of their movements can be traced from the inscriptions. The Tamil Householders Terrace inscription is regarded as one of the very few which refers to Tamils in the period. These are the earliest documents in which the term Dameda ( Pali Damila) has been met with. This inscription shows that they preferred to use the Sinhala language of the time and that their names did not differ from the names found in other inscriptions e.g. Sujat and Tissa. However, as the author concludes, they were conscious that they were a separate people, for they called themselves Dameda.

Author's systematic approach dealing with each phase in a chronological sequence, under various headings , political, economic, social and religious, gives a clear picture of the development that has taken place over the centuries in Sri Lanka; the evolution of kingship, and the king's role as ' Defender of the Faith', and the development of the sangha from a cave dwelling, amorphous community to a more complex, compact one, controlling large economically independent establishments, the growth of the local government institutions, the irrigation system, taxation, the use of money, diet and many other facts; each of which is sufficient to open new vistas of historical research for an interested student.

The book, Institutions of Ancient Ceylon from Inscription (from the 3 century BC to 830AD) Volume 1, is a valuable piece of history that every Sri Lankan should be proud of to have in their library. 322 pages factual history bound in hard cover is sold at Rs.1000 and can be obtained now from the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy. It is also available at most of the bookshops in Colombo and arrangements are being made to make it available for sale in the UK soon.

Quoting Professor Sudharshan Senevirante, " the future of, both, historical and archaeological studies in Sri Lanka is at cross roads facing a dilemma of priorities, choices, resources, resource persons, attitude and above all quality of research". After 53 long years Prof. Lakshman Perera's Masterpiece has finally appeared in print as a classic. But that is only in part- volume I.

Two volumes are more equally interesting in their original form to be published in the manner Volume 1 has been done. Today there are so many Sri Lankans living abroad who have the thirst to delve into the history of their motherland, have enough ad reline to make a noise about the continuing distortion of Sri Lanka's history. For them and whoever is patriotic and thinks of his motherland this would be the opportune moment, a prime opportunity and above all to consider it as a duty to come forward, join hands together and ensure that Prof. Perera's Volumes II and III get published as soon as possible, rather than letting profit orientated publishers to contemplate another half a century, if they come forward at all !