Resurrecting memories of cosmopolitanism | Sunday Observer

Resurrecting memories of cosmopolitanism

14 February, 2021

One of the most obvious issues in culture and its politics in Sri Lanka today at the level of popular manifestation is our collective amnesia when it comes to our ‘cultural pasts.’ People often believe their heritage can be traced from an ‘ideal’ and ‘un-mixed’ moment in the distant past via a linear line right up to the present.

In this scheme of problematic and simplistic cultural reckoning, what is generally lost is the ability to take stock of our cultural pasts in a more nuanced sense, and to see what kind of cultural influences and practices might have informed our commonsense at different points in the past and made us who we were and who we have become. My interest today is to only focus on a brief moment in this lengthy cultural past informed by what we might call a sense of cosmopolitanism.

Cultural amnesia

My interest was triggered after reading Prof Gananath Obeyesekere’s recent book, The Many Paces of the Kandyan Kingdom 1591-1765: Lessons for Our Time (2020) and the long-term realisation of the cultural amnesia many of suffer from. What I have flagged in this essay comes from Prof Obeyesekere’s book.

Today, the popular perception is, when it comes to culture and particularly of the Sinhalas, the Kandyan period is the most pristine and authentic reservoir of past cultural knowledge and practices. This is why, practices from dance to music and sartorial codes from this period have been adopted in present day cultural and political practices as the most authentic representation of the country’s past.

It is true that information from the Kandyan period is far more readily available to reconstruct its cultural past more clearly than it would be possible with Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. But in these journeys into the past, we forget often the far more complex and interesting cultural practices from that time which made the Kandyan period one of the most cosmopolitan phases of Sri Lanka’s past.

To begin with, the Kandyan Kingdom was known for an important cultural practice that is relevant today as well. This is its tolerance of difference in faith and accommodation of religious and ethnocultural pluralism in the kingdom. Information on this is more readily available particularly from the time of Kings Vimala Dharma Suriya 1 (1591-1604) to Narendra Singha (1707-1739).

According to Dutch historian and theologian Phillipus Baldaeus (1632-1672), the king allowed “everyone a free exercise of” religion “according to their own will and pleasure.”

The two kings who assumed power after King Vimala Dharma Suriya, King Senarat (1604-1635) and King Rajasingha II (1635-1687) have also established their tolerance and acceptance of plurality. For instance, they accommodated Catholic refugees persecuted by the Dutch irrespective of the kingdom’s hostility to the Portuguese. In the same vein, the Goan Catholic Missionary, Father Joseph Vaz was given the freedom of movement and faith in Kandyan territories by King Vimala Dharma Suriya II (1687-1707) and his successor King Narendra Singha (1707-1739). In doing so, both kings ignored the provisions of the ’1638 Convention’ signed between the Dutch and the Kandyans in the time of Rajasingha II.

Accommodation and tolerance

It demanded that Catholic priests must be expelled from Kandyan territories. This level of accommodation and tolerance is further established in 1701 report by the Catholic order, the “though the King of Kandy is zealous for his religion [Buddhism], he has permitted fathers to perform public acts of Christian devotion, such as processions and feasts.” Similarly, when the Portuguese expelled four thousand Muslims, King Senarat not only offered them protection, but also later facilitated their settlement in the east coast.

Beyond this kind of religious accommodation, the Kandyan period was also known for its ethnic and cultural plurality. As Joris van Spielbergen, the Dutch diplomat who visited King Vimala Dharma Suriya 1 in the early 1600s notes, “among the Singales there live many Moors, Turks and other heathens, who all have special laws. Brahmos (Brahmins) are there in large numbers.” That is, even a foreign visitor to Kandy in the time of King Vimala Dharma Suriya was able to easily see the kingdom’s pluralism as a matter of routine reality.

Spielbergen further states, all these people “have special laws.” This is an indication of the fact that different groups could maintain their own distinct religious and cultural practices. This kind of cultural pluralism also extended to the royal court. As Spielbergen further informs us, he was received “and accompanied thus to the city of Candy by some thousand armed soldiers of all nationalities, such as Turcken (Turks), Mooren (moors), Singales, Cafferos (Kaffirs) and renegade Portuguese.”

Cultural roots

But despite the availability of this kind of historical and cultural information, we have not thought carefully what the cultural landscape of the Kandyan kingdom must have been when all these practices and potential influences are taken into account, and to what extent our present day cultural symbols taken from this past might ultimately trace their genesis to these numerous roots.

These are merely a few examples of the cultural pluralism and accommodation from our collective past. Unfortunately, however, most people today have forgotten ‘this’ more colourful and important past in their efforts at creating more exclusive pasts for the different ethnic and religious groups of which they are a part.

Due to this historical and cultural amnesia, not only have we lost sight of an important aspect of our own past, but also a crucial foundation for the present and a means to imagine the future.

In this context, it will make considerable sense if we can find ways through schools, textbooks, mass media as well as more popular contemporary means, such as social media to educate ourselves and our children of who we are, and who we have been. It seems to me this is the most important cultural project for the future that might as well begin in 2021.

One way to do so would be to make texts, such as Prof Obeyesekere’s book referred to earlier available in Sinhala and Tamil. But we should not assume such a venture is the responsibility of the state alone.

It can be. But it can, and should also be the responsibility of concerned people in general. Investing in a sensible understanding of Sri Lanka’s cultural pasts is not merely a matter of the past. It is an investment for the present and the future.