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Celluloid Nationalism in Sri Lanka

2013 Jul 01

In post war Sri Lanka, where triumphalism is an ever-present threat to reconciliation, and where issues of religious and language diversity continue to engender conflict, we are encountering a reassertion of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism through the powerful medium of film. In the recent past we have seen the grand dramatization of several episodes in the vamsic account of Sri Lankan history. These include Abá (2008), Mahindagamanaya (2011) and Vijaya Kuweni (2012), which are now complemented by the recent release of Siri Parakum. This article is not a critique of the artistic value of the film Siri Parakum. It is a beautiful piece of cinematography with several wonderful performances. However, given that there is little exploration of human nature through themes such as morality, love or death, one can safely conclude that the principal aim of Siri Parakum is to depict an episode in the island’s history. It is this claim to historical authority, and the ideas that it thus asserts, which I wish to analyse.

Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism draws upon a particular narrative of the island’s history to legitimize its ideology. Its claims for the island as the home of the Sinhala race and the seat of Theravada Buddhism rest on the portrait of antiquity depicted in the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa. The ascendance of the vamsic narrative as the authoritative account of the past in the popular imagination is key to this process. Roberts argues that, as the emphasis in history writing in the modern era “is on linear teleology presented through a development narrative with a chronology and a series of empirical facts that build causal links and a relatively definitive and coherent picture of what happened,” historians of the twentieth century “found rich and amenable material in the vamsa narrative of the Sinhalese because the latter possessed a chronological framework and focused on the political history of a sate system.”[i] As the accounts of the vamsa were placed at the core of the historical narrative of the island, it was a small stretch to harness the inherent consciousness of the ascendency of Buddhism, found in this text written by Buddhist monks, to support Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism.  Dharmadasa notes that while the successive authors of the vamsa have continuously maintained a historical consciousness, “the underlying theme of the vamsa literature is the identification of the island as the repository of Buddhism- the Dhammadvipa.”[ii] When the concept of the Dhammadvipa is asserted in the modern context, it must be envisioned as a polity in which the Sinhala-Buddhists hold sway. This vision of the Sri Lankan polity immediately excludes all non-Sinhala-Buddhists, placing them at best as slightly less than equal stakeholders in the nation, and at worst seeing them as unwelcome outsiders. The idea that Sri Lanka is the “Dhammadvipa” inevitably carries divisive implications. Standing on the existing hyper-veneration of the vamsic narrative, Siri Parakum provides a vivid portrait of the utopian Dhammadipa, while emphasising several facets of this ideal, which will require closer analyses.

Pictures speak a thousand words. When we hear or read of historical events or places, our imaginations are driven by our love of the exotic and the fantastical past, full of great men and glorious deeds. This process is equally, if not all the more powerfully, carried out in film. A historical film presents the past at two different levels. It asserts that individuals and incidents that constitute the plot are historical facts and hence creates a narrative of events. For example, the film declares that King Parakramabahu II was a prodigy in literature, who having grown up in a village, upon ascending to the throne revitalized Sinhala-Buddhist culture. At a subtler level, it provides a portrait of what life looked like during that era, particularly with regard to the structure of society, the nature of politics and of war, and daily life in the palace and the village. It is in the depiction of the mechanisms of society and government that Sri Parakum asserts the more powerful themes and presuppositions of Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism.

The main assertion of Siri Parakum is that Sri Lanka is a Dhammadvipa, as is amply evidenced by much of the rhetoric throughout the film. Its plot presents a stable Buddhist kingdom, which is threatened and corrupted by the non-Buddhist ‘other,’ who is eventually defeated, and the rightful Buddhist ruler is restored. The film ends on a note of the preservation and revitalisation of the utopian Dhammadvipa, with the construction of temples, monasteries, the spreading of learning and the expansion of agriculture.  The concept of the Dhammadvipa is fraught with golden age thinking. It is an over-fetishized ideal society, which is the telos of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. As we shall see the structure of this Dhammadvipa is not one that should in any way be valorised. The depiction of the Dhammadvipa has two main aspects: the political structure, which is seen in the palace, and ordinary society, which is seen in the village.  Furthermore, in constructing an ideal society along the lines of racial and religious lines, it inevitably creates an ‘other.’ The film’s depiction of the ‘other’ and the relationship between it and the Sinhala-Buddhist polity must also be examined. It is worth noting that the picture of this world is stripped of the hardships of medieval life, making it all the more glorified and utopian.

The power structure of the Dhammadvipa consists of a union between the political authority of the king, and the spiritual and moral authority of the Buddhist clergy headed by the Sangharaja. At an ideological level, Buddhism is the legitimizing force behind the state. This is encapsulated in the idea of that the ruler of the island must also become the custodian of the Tooth-Relic, which makes kingship open only to a Buddhist. Following the death of King Vijayabahu III, though Prince Vattimi may hold political power, he cannot receive the rajaabisheka, to become the king, as he is not a Buddhist. In presenting political power and Buddhism to be indelibly linked, it implies that the preservation and advancement of the religion is a fundamental priority of the state. It also shows the Buddhist clergy to be not just an advisory, but also a participatory element in politics. The Sangharaja is an active figure in the royal court. While presenting the historically accurate close link between the Buddhist clergy and politics, the film goes further to suggest that Buddhism is the fundamental corrective force that guides political power. Thus, the manifold negative aspects of the melding of religion and politics remain unexplored.  A good portion of the film is dedicated to the prince’s upbringing in an idyllic Sinhala-Buddhist village. This depiction of village life shows the Dhammadvipa of the common folk, and reasserts several well-established motifs of ‘Sinhala-ness.’  Distanced from the spiritually corrupting influence of towns, ports and palaces, the villagers engage in wholesome agriculture. This is a simple, but prosperous society, with the pansala at its heart imparting spiritual guidance, learning and local political leadership. Several beautiful songs associate this world with youth, summer, and an almost Romantic closeness to nature. Together, these present, with renewed vigour, a captivating portrait of the utopian Dhammadvipa. It is an idealised society for which many an audience would feel nostalgic. Yet, it is more a deceptive projection of present ideals than a historically accurate depiction of a place and a period.

The main thrust of the plot is the threat of the outsider, the non-Buddhist, to this Dhammadvipa.  All of the few non-Buddhist elements in this film are depicted as the corruptive outsider. This occurs in the form of an external force in the armies of Magha of Kalinga, and an internal force in the form of the power-hungry queen. The war against Magha’s armies, which is devoid of any semblance of the horrors of medieval warfare, is set to a stirring martial song that includes the following lyrics:

    rakinu desa basa

    apé helyama thun

    hambuwa siwu rata sen

    nasauw para sathuran

Here the thun-sinhala or the Sinhalese people are called upon to defend their country and language, by vanquishing the foreign enemy. The inclusion of basa signals a telling link between the film and the age-old spectre of Sinhala language-nationalism. The song also declares that, preceded by the Tooth-Relic, the Sri Maha-Bodhiya, and Adam’s Peak, Siri Laka siwu kothama belongs to the Sinhalese. This boils down to the idea of a united Sinhala-Buddhist polity, to whom the island belongs, and who is threatened by the destructive foreigner. The corruptive non-Buddhist force also exists within the state, as the murderous queen. Unlike the foreign invader the queen is seen as the other solely on her not being a Sinhala-Buddhist. Her own claim to be a member of this polity is denied due to this reason. It is worth noting that while the assassination plot of the foreign queen is reviled, not an eyebrow is raised when the seemingly innocent non-Buddhist Prince Vattimi is assassinated to make way for the rightful Buddhist ruler. Even nefarious force is implicitly accepted, if used to preserve Buddhist rule. It is only through ridding the ‘other’ that the purity of the Buddhist polity is preserved. As with any construction of a utopian society, by the very fact that it is utopian, any outside influence is inevitably seen as negative. Thus exclusivity, and perhaps even intolerance, belies the relationship between the Dhammadvipa and the outside world. Furthermore, in conceptualizing the ‘other’ only in negative light, the film seems to claim that homogeneity as Buddhists is the penultimate state of this polity.

Finally another disturbing aspect of the film is the legitimization of militarized Buddhism. While reviewing a group of young monks who are studying the martial arts, the chief-incumbent Thera declares that he too had studied these arts as a samanera, in order to protect the “rata, vehara viahra, bana poth, goivithan bath, vawu amunu etc.”  The Thera later uses the figure of Therputthabhaya, one of King Dutugemunu’s legendary ten warriors, to claim that like him the young monks may temporarily give up robes in order to fight for the country. One wonders whether, in an atmosphere where groups of Buddhist monks resort to violence and crime to assert their ideologies, this is image of a politicised, militarized Sangha is what should be most prominently portrayed.

At its heart Siri Parakum, is a tale of revival and restoration. A non-Buddhist outsider threatens the peace and stability of the Dhammadipa. The threat is defeated, the Sinhala-Buddhist King is restored, and the edification of Buddhism and prosperity follow. As modern Sri Lanka emerges from a war, and is fraught with instability, one wonders if a revival narrative that valorises a Dhammadvipa, is an idea that should inform the collective imagination. Though some may claim that it is only a film, we must remember that films are the new mode of story telling, and stories are the building blocks of the communal conscience. Therefore, though it may claim historical authority, Siri Parakum is in fact a eulogy to the passing of an imagined world. A world that some may still yearn for.

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