K. D. Paranavitana’s contribution to Dutch studies | Sunday Observer

K. D. Paranavitana’s contribution to Dutch studies

The term ‘Dutch Period’ has been deliberately avoided in this essay because it has Euro-centric connotations. The Dutch like the Portuguese, administered only the coastal belt and a small portion of the island, whereas a large extent of interior territories was under the Kandyan Kingdom. The Kandyans who launched liberation struggles attacked the Dutch territories from time to time and in 1762 the Katuwana interior fort between Akuressa and Hakmana bordering the Sinharaja forest as well as the Matara fortress were taken over by them although the Dutch recaptured them later.

Nevertheless, it must be stated that the colonial era was a step forward from the earlier stage of slow socio-economic change. It was during this era that society and economy were transformed from semi-feudalism to mercantilism. Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC played an important role in this transformation. The introduction of the Roman-Dutch Law, land registration, school system primarily based on Protestant religion and European marriage customs. ushered in a new era in Sri Lankan history.

National literary award

From the 1950s, several scholars have made substantial contributions to understand the various aspects of Dutch encounter in Sri Lanka. Pioneering work was done by Professors Sinnappah Arsaratnam and Carl Goonewardena in the mid 1950s and their excellent Ph.D. dissertations were published abroad. During the 1960s D.A. Kotalawela and V. Kanapathipillai conducted doctoral research on Dutch studies but their dissertations have not reached the light of print.

Both contributed very little even in the form of articles. Recently, Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri brought out an excellent anthropological and historical survey on land tenure and social change in the Dutch territories by displaying his expertise in Medieval Dutch language. Nevertheless, he too has not pursued research on Dutch-Sri Lanka relations any further.

In this context, Prof. K.D. Paranavitana’s writings on the Netherland’s connections with Sri Lanka are unique and exceptional. His writings are not only voluminous but also of high quality.

Among his many publications; Journal of Spilbergen: The first Dutch Envoy to Ceylon (1997); Land for Money: Dutch Land Registration in Sri Lanka (2001), Galle: the Heritage City (2005) and various memoirs of Dutch Governors, their Diaries, diaries of officers such as commanders deserve special attention.

Of the last mentioned category, Prof. Paranavitana’s translation from original Dutch with an exhaustive introduction, the Travel Diary of Governor Isaac Augustine Rumpf won the national literary award for the best translation (miscellaneous category) in 2016. The Diary covers the years 1717 to 1720 when Rumpf visited the areas of Hanwella, Galle, Kalutara, Mannar and Jaffna.

A main objective of these tours was to locate the exact boundaries of land-parcels and the villages to increase the land revenues. At the same time Rumpf reflects his experiences with the natives, their grievances and complaints. His account provides detailed local snapshots of early eighteenth century Sri Lankan history.

Archival research

Equally or more important is the book co-authored by Prof. K. D. Paranavitana with Dr. R.K. de Silva titled, Maps and Plans of Dutch Ceylon, (2002). This volume is testimony to the nature of painstaking archival research on the geographical contexts of Dutch colonial operations. The vestiges of most of the Colonial coastal fortresses that exist now belong to the era of Dutch occupation of maritime areas of the island.

But many of them originated during the Portuguese encounter. What the Dutch did was make improvements upon them. The Dutch Maps and Plans give detailed layouts of less visible forts of Colombo, Kalutara, Negombo, Tangalle, Mannar, Arippu, Point Pedro, Elephant Pass, Pooneryn, Mullaitivu, Delft, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Although the Dutch did not build a fort in Kotte, one of their early maps shows the configuration and entire rampart of the Portuguese fort of Kotte, though not a single map drawn by the Portuguese have been found so far.

Galle: the Heritage City

Prof. Paranavitana’s illustrated book; Galle: the Heritage City is the only publication that provides a total picture of the colonial city; Galle and its transition up to the present. It goes into depth about the layout of the Galle fort, its ramparts, 14 bastions such as the Sun, Moon, Star and Akersloot; administrative buildings, hospital, warehouses, law courts, manufacturing areas, residential quarters, church, cemetery, belfry, the unique sewerage system and the changes that took place during the British occupation of the Island.

The author also refers to the oldest breadfruit (del) tree near the Akersloot bastion which can still be seen. In that context, he states further that Rambutan, Durian and Mangosteen were introduced into the island from South East Asia by the Dutch.

Although he had been awarded various honorary titles including the “Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau” by the Dutch Government, Prof. Paranavitana has not failed to engage in research on the negative aspects of colonial rule. Under colonial rulers, Buddhism and Sri Lankan culture suffered considerably.

For instance, the Portuguese persecuted Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims and vandalized Muslim mosques such as the Kechchimalai mosque in Beruwala, Hindu temples such as Munnesvaram Kovil near Chilaw and Tiruketisvaram Kovil near Mannar, and numerous Buddhist shrines including the Kelaniya temple and the Kande Viharaya.

This was an era of a clash of civilizations. The Dutch, when they invaded Kandy in 1765 destroyed even the Temple of the Tooth and robbed its valuables. Prof. Paranavitana’s article titled “Suppression of Buddhism and aspects of indigenous culture under the Portuguese and the Dutch” published in JRASSL Special Issue in 2004 highlights some of these atrocities.

Prof. Paranavitana has devoted much of his time for the enhancement of the vistas of existing knowledge in the field of his specialization, particularly, the colonial history of Dutch occupation in the maritime districts of Sri Lanka in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This brief essay can only be ended by lamenting the non-existence of younger generation scholars who could continue Portuguese and Dutch studies irrespective of inducements offered for investigations into their relations with Sri Lanka.

The writer is Chairman, National Education Commission