Zeylanica by Asiff Hussein

24 February, 2010

Zeylanica by Asiff Hussain is a non-fiction book about the diverse population of Sri Lanka focusing on their linguistic history. I like to read up on Sri Lankan history and culture every time I visit, partly because I don’t speak the language and feel that I’m missing something vital. I’ve also had my interest piqued by our biannual home leave and holidays since childhood driving around the country and being regaled with tales from my father (who you can probably tell loves, loves, loves his country.)

Although I was aware of the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burghers (Dutch and Portuguese) who populated the island as well as the Chinese and Malays who remained in the country and married into the population, there were several groups of people I knew nothing about, such as the Kaffirs (descendants of African slaves brought over by the Portuguese, Dutch and British), the Rodiyas (similar to the Untouchables of India), Nittavos (primitive Pygmy-like people) and Nagas (a coastal snake worshipping people). We were going through our books and doing a cull this holiday and what do I find on my father’s bookshelf? M.D. Raghavan’s anthropological study of the Rodiyas , Handsome Beggars: The Rodiyas of Ceylon in 1951. Nice coincidence.

And of course there are the dwindling Veddas (the original indigenous people of the island) and the legendary and mythical Yakkhas and Rakshasas of Ramayana fame. Who can forget the image of King Ravana who kidnapped Princess Sita away from her Prince Rama? This sparked an epic battle to save the Princess from the demon King of Lanka and Rama does just that with the help of his brother Lakshman and his trusted friend, the Monkey God Hanuman who crossed over from India to Lanka in one leap.

Yakkhas also feature in the Mahavamsa which tells of the birth of Sri Lanka with the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India, expelled from his kingdom with 700 followers, who arrives on the island. He is smitten by Kuveni, a Yakkha who has transformed into a beautiful woman. She has fallen in love with the handsome prince and has pledged to hand over her people and make Vijaya lord of her land. The two are married and she bears him twins. But when Vijaya decides to formally become King of Lanka, he sends for an Indian bride and turns Kuveni out. And she in turn is savagely torn apart for betraying her people. You can read a brilliant fictional account in Colin de Silva’s epic The Founts of Sinhala.

I was initially drawn to Zeylanica by its cover with its many photos of the different people that make up the population of Sri Lanka, but the content was both interesting, albeit a little dry as it is predominantly an academic treatise (with copious footnotes, such as you would expect.) But there are several interesting chapters, especially those pertaining to the mythological beginnings of the island, the historical route through which the people and language have traveled from Vedic India, the evolution of Sinhalese from Sanskrit and Pali and the linguistic connections with other Indo-European languages such as Latin, Greek and English.

Although it’s not a quick read, it was very interesting and informative and I certainly learnt a lot about the groups of people that make up and give Sri Lanka such diversity.

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5 Responses to “Zeylanica by Asiff Hussein”

  1. eriko Says:

    how inspiring. the ethnic and cultural melange of sri-lanka was what fascinated me so much – but of course did not know that it is this multi-layered. i’ve only heard about the veddas because i encountered an old man with a very distinct expression, i recall.
    amazing how an island can be this rich in origin.

    by the way, it is nice to dig in your parents bookshelves, isn’t it? i also love to go back to my own bookshelves at home. i’ve just brought back Kanoko Okamoto’s “The House of Spirit” which my aunt(not related but my mom’s good friend) translated into English, and Foucault’s “Un fantastique de bibliotheque” which i bought when i was a student and never read(i think). let’s see..

    • chasing bawa Says:

      It is amazing what you find on the bookshelves at home, especially since some books have been sitting their for years. In a way, it’s like looking at someone’s history through their reading. I’m nosy like that so I love checking out everyone’s bookshelves! Btw, is your Foucault in French? I think it’s hard enough in English. I just checked out Kanoko Okamoto on the net and she sounds like an amazing woman. To have traveled all over Europe and the UK during that period (and as a woman with her family) is almost unheard of.

      How interesting that you have met a Vedda person in Sri Lanka. I don’t think I ever have. It’s really interesting to learn about a country’s indigenous past.

  2. eriko Says:

    Foucault in French? no way. i dont read any French to start with. its in Japanese : )

  3. eriko Says:

    i thought you mentioned Kanoko Okamoto in your previous postings… her son is the artist, Taro Okamoto.

    anyways, it seems that Foucault is a very tough bite after all. i’ve started a few pages on the weekend, but couldn’t get through. must have bought it as a lit criticism reference or something… going back to the bookshelve for now ; )

    David Mitchel and “Mosquito” have arrived on the weekend too. still deciding where to start! (my brain is still lingering on “Zero”.)

    i know what you mean about other ppl’s bookshleves. i don’t have that many chances, but when i do its nice to see what other ppl have chosen to read and get inspired.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      You may be right. My mind is like a sieve. Kanoko Okamoto may be in one of the books I’m planning to read for the Women Unbound Challenge about Japanese women writers in the early 20th century.

      I can’t wait for you to start reading Mitchell! But I’m still really intrigued about ‘Zero’. However, I don’t think my Japanese will be up to it – especially if it’s about philosophy/maths.


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