Photo courtesy of The Island

This article is the first in a series exploring the reasons for Sri Lanka’s descent into social and economic chaos and lawlessness by Dr. Siri Gamage, an eminent author and researcher who has written extensively on Sri Lanka. He has also explored globalisation, intercultural studies, critical race theory and multiculturalism across countries. Over the last decade he has been critical of academic dependency in social sciences and explored decolonial and postcolonial thought relevant to the global south.

Sri Lanka is passing through a turbulent time in terms of its economy, society, governance, community cohesion, cultural spirit and ethos. After the political and social upheaval generated by the lack of provisions and social security which led to aragalaya in 2022, there is a socio-political discourse in the country and diaspora about why the country descended into the mess it is trapped in today and what the way forward is.

Many interpretations and explanations have been offered by erudite and versatile writers in the media, which will be ignored by the ruling political class interested in maintaining the status quo. Nonetheless, it is important to offer a sociological perspective drawing from decades of my learning, writing, observations and understanding of the subject in order to offer fresh insights on what happened in history and for a different, prosperous, peaceful Sri Lanka where liveability and sustainability become foundations for life. This is the opening article.

The argument advanced here is that the country was ruled by a system of hierarchies that considered the people as objects and rulers as possessing all the wisdom, knowledge, power and privilege to make decisions on behalf of the unthinking, unreflective and unproductive masses of people who were called subjects. This system, mentality, frame of reference for thinking and acting plus associated patterns of behaviour continued after the country gained independence in 1948 because various structures and institutions set in place by the colonialists including education, commerce, religion, legal system, policing, elite privileges, parliamentary system remained in place. Decisions about policies, programmes and projects were made by the elected politicians, influential families, technocrats and bureaucrats considering the people as objects on behalf of the people while their voices were largely marginalised.

To create a better Sri Lanka, there needs to be a “system change” or change in this system of hierarchical governance and control where the few with access to power enjoy material and symbolic fruits of multinational operations, nation’s resources and entrenched patronage. How and why will become clear in the series of articles to follow. Secondly, there needs to be a massive social and cultural mobilisation for change ground up in an organised and intellectually sound way drawing from regional and global examples. Educated scholars, if there are any left, have to lead this movement after a conference to identify the problem and a way forward.

I begin with the way Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was ruled in the past in order to come to an understanding of the present.

Pre-colonial administration

Sri Lanka was ruled by a monarchical system during the pre-colonial period covering the recorded history in particular from around the time of King Devanampiyatissa and the arrival of Buddhism with Rev. Mahinda. During this long period of history, there must have been differences in the way the country and its outlying areas or districts were governed by a given king but such differences have been noted as deriving from individual character of the king rather than the system of governance and control itself. Expansion of the Buddhist civilisation and its sponsorship by Sinhalese kings in Lanka superimposed a monolithic, top down system of governance on the existing indigenous way of living, its culture and customs.

Two main hierarchies seem to have operated during the pre-colonial period. 1. monarchical governance and control 2. Buddhist religious hierarchy and the Hindu hierarchy. There had been variations of these or other local traditions, norms and practices especially at the provincial levels but the historians in Sri Lanka trained in the western tradition of scholarship concentrated on the national and international rather than provincial histories – a weakness that continues. Under the former, the king was the supreme holder of power making decisions on behalf of the population under his rein. He had a royal court with key ministers or adigars. Outlying districts were governed by disawas appointed by the king on ground of loyalty.

Land was a key asset that provided sustenance to the masses who were given parcels in return for services to the royal palace. i.e. rajakariya. Those who held important offices at the upper levels of the governance hierarchy had access to large extents of land, in fact villages, in return for their service to the king. They also had the privilege of obtaining services from dependent villagers in the cultivated land, domestic sphere and in the performance of duties and travel. Some old pictures or drawings show how some carried noble men on dolava and others carried umbrellas or drummers announced to the villagers the passing of a dignitary through the locality. There is not much historical writing available about the natives who performed various duties to the king and the royal court or the provincial chiefs. Nothing substantial is available about the minorities or the role of women at either end of this governance hierarchy which shows that the society was a male dominated one during the pre-colonial period. Since the country’s history has been written from the perspective of who ruled, trials and tribulations in the royal families or the inter kingdom rivalries, historians have by and large neglected the people’s histories.

Like other decolonised countries of the global south, it is high time that the emerging generation of historians compile a people’s history for Sri Lanka with a decolonial mindset.

The Buddhist hierarchy followed a similar pattern. The chief prelates resided in Kandy, Anuradhapura or another ancient capital. Sangha organisation based on nikayas spread to temples in outlying districts. In addition to the teaching and learning of Dhamma, chief monks or the councils of monks handled disciplinary matters pertaining to the behaviour of monks. Religious establishment consisted of temples and land offered by the kings to the order of monks. Villagers who either lived on such land or worked them to earn a living were required to give part of what they produced to the respective temples. Management of viharagam land was by the chosen lay people. The role of basnayake nilame in relation to devalagam or diyawadana nilame in the case of temple in Kandy must have been reflections of this system of land tenure. Ownership or having access to land was thus a key criterion that defined the status of different layers of society. It was second only to the holding of higher office in the monarchical administration.

Apart from farmers, there were others such as those engaged in various occupations like blacksmiths or achariya, those who had expertise on medicine, carpentry, engineering, water management and scholarship. Some of them accessed land under rajakariya system.  It is widely believed that the upper caste people who were treated as freeholders had access to the land without having to offer a service to the royal palace i.e. govigama. However, this is a contested thesis because there is a belief in the hills district bathgama caste communities that the govigama were not indigenous but migrants who arrived in Lanka during the reign of last four kings. During my anthropological field work for the Ph.D. in 1984-85 in a Kandyan village near Pilimatalawa I came across this view.

There some authors who wrote on Sinhalese social organisation. The Kandyan Period by Ralph Pieris provides details about this system of governance and control while writings by Gananath Obeyesekere and Edmond Leach provide details of Kandyan land tenure. A book by H.L. Seneviratne provides details of Kandyan temple rituals. However, absence of discussion in relation to the power structure is remarkable in such anthropological work. Knowledge construction about countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and broadly the global south – whether we are dealing with historical periods or contemporary times – is a contested subject. The knowledge we use today in former colonies of various empires is heavily influenced by the knowledge produced and methodologies developed in metropolitan centres of former empires absorbed by emerging scholars and professionals as part of their training. Therefore, the relevance of such knowledge acquired from Western European and North American centres of teaching, research and learning to our own contextual needs has to be questioned by scholars in developing countries/former colonies if we are to be free from the dependencies prevalent in the academia.

To be continued