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Book Review of "Peopling of Sri Lanka: An outline based on Genetic (DNA) Studies"

by Subramaniam Visahan, Tamil Information Centre, 2010

Instead of analysing early human migrations on the basis of myths and fables, Visahan has relied on genetic studies, which is gaining currency in recent times.

Sri Lanka:  Book review-Diversities and Linkages, Freedom and Tolerance go Together 

by V. Suryanarayan, South Asia Analysis Group, December 6, 2010 

SUBRAMANIYAM VISAHAN, Peopling of Sri Lanka: An outline based on Genetic (DNA) Studies (Tamil Information Centre, London. 2010), pp. 129, Price Indian Rupees 150/-, Sri Lankan Rupees 300/-. 

The author Thiru Subramaniam Visahan is a budding social and cultural anthropologist and this book is his first major publication. Educated in Jaffna, Sri Lanka; Department of Anthropology, University of Madras; University of Witwatersrand, South Africa and the University College, London, Thiru Visahan came under the influence of renowned teachers like Prof. Indrapala, Prof. Sittampalam, Prof. Raghupathy, Prof. V. Sudarsen and Dr. Siva Thyagarajah. Instead of analysing early human migrations on the basis of myths and fables, Visahan has relied on genetic studies, which is gaining currency in recent times.  

The book is divided into two parts, the first part is in Tamil and the second is in English. The details of the primary and secondary sources, which the author has consulted, are given along with the text. It is an innovative idea and is very pleasing to the eyes. The title of the book mentions that it is based on genetic (DNA) studies. Thiru Visahan has been living in England for many years and he could have easily based his conclusions on the basis of DNA tests on Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims who have settled in Europe. However, I am disappointed that Thiru Visahan has not used this rich source material. I hope when a revised edition of the book is brought out, this lacuna will be rectified. 

The migratory history of human beings, during recent years, is being subjected to rigorous scientific analysis by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The National Geographic Society on a world wide scale and the Anthropological Society of India on the Indian situation have done commendable work in this fascinating area. Thiru Visahan has tried to apply some of these findings to the Sri Lankan situation.  

Let us take the findings of the Anthropological Survey of India. The People of India, the on going research project of the Anthropological Survey of India, attempts to provide the cultural profile of all communities in India, the impact of change, and linkages and diversities among them. One interesting conclusion needs special mention. Communities, cutting across religions, share a great many cultural traits. Thus the Hindus share a very high percentage of traits with Muslims (97.7 per cent), Buddhists (91.9 per cent), Sikhs (88.00 per cent) and Jains (77. 4 per cent). Other communities that share a high percentage of cultural traits are Muslim- Sikhs (89.95 per cent), Muslim –Buddhist (91.18 per cent) and Jain-Buddhist (81.34 per cent). As Prof. K. Suresh Singh, former Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, has remarked, “Diversities and linkages, freedom and tolerance go together”.  

Despite the diversities, the people of Sri Lanka, like their Indian counterparts, have come to share many common cultural attributes. But with the exacerbation of ethnic conflict, the chauvinists among the Sinhalese and the Tamils, two sides of the same coin, started projecting the two communities as two antagonistic entities, who were at war with one another for several centuries. The French political philosopher Voltaire once remarked, “If you believe in absurdities, you will commit atrocities”.   The ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka, I submit, is a product of the nation building experiment in the post-independence period, when after 1956, the Sinhalese political elite wanted to build the Sri Lankan nation on the basis of Sinhalese language and Buddhist religion, to the exclusion of legitimate minority claims. 

Thiru Visahan cites many authoritative sources to prove the point that the Sinhalese and the Tamils share many cultural attributes. Prof. Stanley Tambiah, the well known anthropologist, after years of painstaking research, has come to the conclusion that the Tamils and the Sinhalese share many parallel features of “traditional caste, kinship, popular religion, cults, customs and so on. But they have come to be divided by their mythic charters and tendentious historical writings of the past”. Prof. Gananath Obeysekere traces the ancestry of the Sinhalese and the Tamils to South India. To quote Obeysekere, “Biologically speaking, those whom we call Sinhala are, in fact, racially intertwined with South Indian peoples and with the aboriginal groups like the Vedda; and the Tamils, who live in the north and the east, are also biologically mixed”.  

Thiru Visahan’s book needs to be widely circulated in India and in Sri Lanka. A Sinhalese translation of the book should be published soon. But the disappointing part of the book is the fact that it is full of grammatical and stylistic errors. The author should get the book thoroughly edited before he brings out a revised edition. 

 (Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Senior Professor and founding Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai)