A Beacon towards our past

1447382280000 » Tagged as: Sri Lanka , Tagged as: history , Tagged as: women



"In this era, when every country in the world evinces a great interest to know the social positions of women in different ages and the way society looked at them, this new work by Professor Indrani Munasinghe is not only a timely effort but also a beacon directed at the ancient Sinhala society." Dr. Lorna Devaraja wrote about the book, "Parani Lakdiva Kantawa".


"Sri Lanka, in both her legendary and historical past, enjoyed a rare reputation which perhaps cannot be claimed by any other people in the world: freedom, high status and dignity enjoyed by her woman was unique...." wrote Sudu Banda Herath, former Chief Translator Dept. of Information, who translated Prof. Munasinghe's book as, "Sri Lankan Woman in Antiquity".


Prof. W. I. Siriweera had this to say about 'Parani Lakdiva Bhikshuni Arama', "It brings together hitherto unknown but most valuable information on the Bhikkhuni order of Sri Lanka which survived only until the end of the era of the Anuradhapura kingdom."


Prof. Munasinghe, who was the Chair of History, University of Colombo, directed not just one, but many beacons towards our past. The books she had written include, 'Sri Lankave Marga Pravahanaya', 'The Colonial Economy on Track Roads and Railways in Sri Lanka', 'Status of Ancient Sri Lankan Women in Buddhism', and the most recent, 'Lakdiva Mahamarga saha Gamanagaman Krama'. She received the State Literary Award for the Best Research Publication in 1999, for Parani Lakdiva Kantava.


We in Sri Lanka are at a great advantage to trace our history, because of the written records, not only on ola leaf, but also on stones. Prof. Munasinghe does not depend totally on our ancient chronicles. Fortunately for us, Prof. Munasinghe had a more reliable source for her study, the stone inscriptions, on stone pillars and caves, and the graffiti on the mirror-like wall at Sihigiri.


Today there are very serious questions raised by the present day historians and archaeologists about many of the stories narrated in the chronicles. In addition, almost all these documents were written by Buddhist monks, and we are aware of their attitude towards women. All through the period of over 2000 years, where we have written records, we have been under colonial domination, first from North India, then South India and finally Europe. Thus our society, and specially the place of women in our society, was heavily influenced by the male chauvinist brahmins, and then the Christian missionaries.


She has identified the 'Upasika' who had gifted caves for the Sangha, "Most women who donated caves made it a point to state their relationship to members of their families." But because she also has a very open mind, not clouded by the foreign-imposed traditional views, she added her observation, "...women using the names of their fathers, husbands and sons as a means of identification, is in no way an indication of any inferiority they suffered in a male dominated society." About "The term Upasika, was considered the highest title a devout Buddhist woman can have as far as the religion was concerned. Therefor it is not surprising that pious women, including queens consort and youthful princesses, desired to be called Upasika." Prof. Munasinghe wrote,

"It is a manifest fact that the society of ancient Sri Lanka was able to develop its own unique social structure distinct from Indian tradition due to the extensive influence of Buddhism....Unlike in India, widows never suffered any social stigma or disgrace."


"There are stories of women, whose power of concentration and attention was so intense and the power of retention so marvelous that they were able to memorize an entire discourse with its commentary only by listening to it once." Prof. Munasinghe also draws our attention to the poems written by women on the Sihigiri wall, which confirms the high standard of literacy among them.


"Buddhist virtues were embedded in her from early childhood. In an era where education was not measured by literacy, this upbringing made her knowledgeable and intelligent and capable of discussing subjects that would have been considered too much for women in another culture."


"Beside her duties in the paddy field, chena and house, a housewife was expected to attend to her home garden too. Almost all the vegetable requirements of the family were grown in the home garden by the mistress of the house. Generally it was the wife who procured vegetables and fruits for the table and firewood for the hearth." This statement by Prof. Munasinghe adds to my conviction that even in pre-historic times it was the woman who gathered food, and the man as the hunter is a myth created by a male dominated culture.


Another very interesting fact brought out by Prof. Munasinghe, is that our country had probably our own Nightingales, long before Europe. Female nurses had accompanied the armed forces sent by Parakramabahu (1153 - 1186) to wage war against Ramanna desa. Long before that female nurses and attendants had served in the hospitals maternal health centers established by king Buddhadasa 337-365 A.C.) and Upatissa 1 (365 - 406 A.C.) She also mentions the women of the "oldest profession", 'nagara sobini', who were really not prostitutes in the modern sense of the word, but who 'beautified the city'. They were the courtesans mentioned by Rudyard Kipling who called it the most ancient profession in the world. (Life into Arts, 22-04-2015).


Emeritus Professor Indrani Munasinghe should continue to create more beacons to guide us towards learning more about our past, because it is only by knowing our past, that we can make the future a better place for our children.