Category Archives: Buddhism

The Sinhalese Too Migrated to Sri Lanka from India: Part 2 – Vijaya


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Prince-regent Vijaya, the eldest son born to Sinhabahu and his twin-sister Sinhasivali, was cruel and callous – an embodiment of evil – and likewise were his friends. Angered by the many intolerable deeds of violence executed by the prince-regent and his followers, the subjects of Sinhapura brought the matter before the king. However, the king took no action against the prince-regent. The angry subjects finally asked the king to kill his evil son Vijaya.

The exasperated king arrested his eldest son Vijaya, the prince-regent, and seven hundred men who were his followers. After disgracing them by shaving off half the head of each person, he banished them from Lála country by loading the men, their wives, and their children on separate vessels and set them afloat on the sea.

The migration routes of the ancestors of the Sinhalese and other ethnic groups into Sri Lanka.
The migration routes of the ancestors of the Sinhalese and other ethnic groups into Sri Lanka.

The children landed on an island called Naggadipa or the ‘island of the naked’ (Jaffna Peninsula in Sri Lanka).

The women landed on an island called Mahiladipaka or ‘islet of women’ in the Maldivian Islands.

Prince Vijaya and his unruly followers landed first at the haven called Suppäraka, now identified with modern Sopara, in Thana district north of Mumbai. However, the hostile reception by the natives, and also dissidence and violence among his men, forced Vijaya to embark again. The second time, their vessel driven by the violence of the wind, they landed on the island of Sri Lanka.

Vijaya and his companions landing at Tambapanni

Vijaya and his men after disembarking from the ship sat down, wearied, on the ground. They found their hands and bodies coloured by the red dust that lay there. So,  they called the place Tambapanni (“copper-colored sand”). Later on, Vijaya founded his capital in Tambapanni, and the island came to bear the same name.

Map of Taprobana- 1588

The Alexandrian geographer, Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90 AD – c. 168 AD) identified the Island as ‘Taprobana’, derived obviously from Tambapanni, when he drafted his map of Sri Lanka. It carried an elaborately ornamented sketch of a wild elephant and a legend in Latin set inside a decorative frame. The map only had a vague resemblance to the Island’s broad base and tapering tip.

At the place of their landing they saw a wandering ascetic seated at the foot of a tree. They approached him and asked him: “What land is this, sir?”

“The island of Lanka,” the ascetic answered.”There are no men (humans) here, and here no dangers will arise.”

The ascetic blessed them by sprinkling on them water from his kamandalu (Tamil: kamandalam). After winding a thread about their hands he disappeared.

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The Sinhalese Too Migrated to Sri Lanka from India: Part 1 – Sinhabahu


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Myself . 

By T. V. Antony Raj

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The consort of the king of the Vanga (a seafaring nation, in the eastern part of the Indian Subcontinent, comprising today’s politically divided Bengal region comprising West Bengal and Bangladesh), was Queen Mayavati, a princess from Kalinga. The royal couple had a daughter named Suppadevi, of whom at birth the court astrologers and soothsayers foretold evil falling upon her. They prophesied that the princess would be wilful and would have union with the king of beasts and lead a wild and unbecoming life.

So, princess Suppadevi was jealously guarded. She was very fair and grew up as the loveliest maiden in the Vanga kingdom. However, she was amorous and exuded uncontrollable sexuality. The king and the queen were not able to tolerate her defiance of parental authority and social norms.

One fine day, desiring the joy of an independent life, Princess Suppadevi eluding the vigilant royal attendants left her royal abode. She joined a caravan travelling to the Magadha country.

While camping in the forest of the Lála country the caravan met with disaster.

Scholars identify Lála country with the modern Rarh region of West Bengal, India which is still called Lala/Larh. Sanskrit texts refer to it as Lata-desa. Al-Biruni, a historian, chronologist and linguist of the medieval Islamic era calls it Lardesh at the extreme hilly west of Bengal where Hooghly district and modern Singur is located. Some scholars identify it as modern Gujarat.

Lion - 02

 

According to the Mahavamsa, a lion attacked the caravan. However, the truth seems to be that it was a robber chief named Sinha, who with his men plundered the caravan).

While the other folk fled this way and that, Suppadevi ran along the path by which the lion had come.

After having assuaged its hunger, the lion beheld the libidinous princess from afar. It immediately desired her carnally. Waving its tail and ears laid-back, it approached Suppadevi. Seeing the lion, the princess remembered the prophecy of the astrologers and soothsayers. Without fear, she caressed the lion lustily rousing it to a fiery passion by her sensuous touch.

Suppadevi climbed on to the beast’s back. The lion immediately sped to its cave carrying the princess, and there it united with her. From this union, the princess in time bore twins – a son and a daughter. The son’s limbs were formed like a lion’s and Suppadevi named him Sinhabahu or lion-armed and named the daughter Sinhasivali or lion-maiden.

The lion kept them in a cave and covered the entrance with a huge rock.

Sinhabahu, Suppadevi, Sinhavalli and the Lion
Sinhabahu, Suppadevi, Sinhasivali and the Lion

When Sinhabahu was about sixteen years old, Suppadevi told him about her ancestry. The youth, longing to know more about the civilized world, wanted to leave the lion’s den.

One day, when the lion left the cave in search of prey, Sinhabahu after rolled off the rocky barrier. He carried his mother and sister on his shoulders and left the cave in haste. They clothed themselves with branches of trees and reached a border-village. There they met a son of Suppadevi’s uncle,  a commander in the army of the Vanga king who ruled the border-country.

The commander gave them clothing which transformed into splendid garments. He served them food on leaves and by reason of their merit, the leaves turned into dishes of gold. The amazed commander asked Suppadevi who she was. The princess told him about her family and clan. The commander then took his uncle’s daughter with him and went to the capital of the Vangas and married her.

When the lion, returning to its cave missed those three people it loved most. It grieved after its offsprings. It neither ate nor drank. Seeking its children it went to the villages in the border-country and found them deserted.

The border-folk came to the king and told that a ferocious lion ravaged their land and appealed to him to ward off this danger.

The king offered a thousand gold coins for the person who would kill the lion.

When Sinhabahu expressed his intention to kill the lion, twice did his mother restrain him.

Since no one dared to kill the lion, the king raised the bounty to two thousand and then to three thousand gold coins along with his kingdom for whoever killed the ravaging lion.

Without informing his mother, Sinhabahu presented himself before the aged king and volunteered to kill the lion.

The youth went to his former home, the lion’s den. When the beast saw Sinhabahu from afar it came forward, to greet its lost son. Sinhabahu without any remorse shot an arrow to slay his father, the lion. Due to the paternal love of the beast, the arrow struck its forehead, rebounded, and fell at the son’s feet without causing any harm. Sinhabahu shot another arrow and then a third, but neither harmed the lion. The lion became wrathful and growled. The fourth arrow pierced the lion’s body and killed it.

Sinhabahu cut off the head of the lion along with its majestic mane. When he reached the capital he learned that seven days had passed since the death of the king of the Vangas.

The ministers rejoiced over the youth’s valiant deed. When the ministers saw Suppadevi, they were all happy to learn that Sinhabahu was the grandson of the late king. The ministers in unison requested the valiant young man him to be their king. Sinhabahu accepted the kingship. Later when his mother got married he handed the kingdom to his mother’s husband.

Sinhabahu with his twin-sister Sinhasivali left the capital of the Vangas and went back to Lála country, the land of their birth. There he made his twin-sister Sinhasivali his consort. He built a city, and they called it Sinhapura.

Sinhasivali gave birth to twin sons sixteen times. Altogether there were thirty-two sons. King Sinhabahu named his eldest son Vijaya, and the younger twin-brother Sumitta. Sinhabahu consecrated Vijaya as prince-regent.

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← Previous: Prelude                                                                → Next: Part 2 – Vijaya

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The Sinhalese Too Migrated to Sri Lanka from India: Prelude


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Myself . 

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Sri Lanka has had a continuous record of human settlement for more than two millennia, and its civilization has been shaped largely by that of the Indian subcontinent. The island’s two major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and its two dominant religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, made their way to the island from India, and Indian influence pervaded such diverse fields as art, architecture, literature, music, medicine, and astronomy. – Encyclopaedia Britannica (Sri Lanka)

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Sri Lanka, also known as India's Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland.
Sri Lanka, also known as India’s Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland.

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Geologically, Sri Lanka, also known as India’s Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland. In consequence, the ancestors of almost all the communities now living in Sri Lanka migrated to the island at some time in the past from India. Scholars agree that the two major communities who now call themselves Sinhalese and Tamils migrated to Sri Lanka from India.

According to history, the Sri Lankan population of the past was not divided into two major races as Sinhalese and Tamils. In the past, in the two native languages Sinhala and Tamil, the word ‘Jathi‘ did not mean race but caste.

It was only in the 19th century, during the British period, consolidation of the population into two major races as Sinhalese and Tamils came into existence. As such, the various caste groups that now make up the Sinhala ‘race’ have their own stories of origin.

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The Sun and Moon Flag (Ira Handa Kodiya)
The Sun and Moon Flag (Ira Handa Kodiya)

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None of the Kings and Queens of Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa has ever claimed that they were Sinhalese. But they have consistently claimed in their inscriptions to have descended from the Kshatriya race and the Indian Sun Dynasty and Lunar Dynasty. The Sun and Moon Flag (Sinhala: Ira Handa Kodiya) symbolises the Solar and Lunar Dynasty origins of the Sinhalese community.

The ancient Mahavamsa or the ‘Great Chronicle’ of Sri Lanka is a historical poem, written in the Pāli language around 4th century AD, about the rulers of Sri Lanka. The first few chapters the Pāli cover the period from the coming of Prince Vijaya of the Rarh region of ancient Bengal in 543 BC to the reign of King Mahasena (334-361). The Mahavamsa too refers to the ancient kings and queens of Sri Lanka, not as Sinhalese, but as Kshatriyas from the Solar and Lunar dynasties.

Though not considered a canonical religious scripture, the Mahavamsa is an important text in Theravada Buddhism. It covers the early history of the Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka, beginning with the time of Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Every chapter of the Mahavamsa ends by stating that it is written for the “serene joy of the pious“.

It is said Lord Buddha visited ancient Lanka three times, but there were no following nor disciples in Lanka as a result of his visits. It was only after Arahath Mahendra, and his fraternal twin of Theri Sanghamitra, the children of Samrat Asoka born to his supreme consort and first wife Vidisha Mahadevi, brought Buddhism here, and the Lankans followed it.

From the emphasis of its point-of-view, one can deduce that Buddhist monks compiled Mahavamsa to record the benevolent deeds of the kings who were patrons of the Mahavihara (Pali: “Great Monastery”) in Anuradhapura. The Theravada Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara chronicled the history of Sri Lankan beginning from the 3rd century BC. In the 5th century AD, the Buddhist monk Mahathera Mahanama combined and compiled these annals into a single document.

The official story of the origin of the Sinhalese from a lion in India is not from the original traditions of any Sinhalese caste. Even in the Mahavamsa, the ‘Lion’ myth encompasses only Vijaya’s family and does not include the service castes that came along with him. The Lion story does not even relate to his ministers. The fact that most Sinhalese castes have their own origin stories proves this.

  • The Salagamas caste traces its origin in Sri Lanka to Nambudiri and other Saligrama Brahmins who came over from Malabar in Kerala invited by king Vathhimi Buvenekabahu of Sri Lanka.
  • The muni clan names of the Salagamas bear testimony to their Brahmin origins.
  • The Durava caste traces its origins from the Nagas and retinues of Pandyan consorts.
  • The Navandanna caste traces its origin to Vishwakarma.
  • The Deva Kula (also known as Wahumpura, Hakuru, etc.) descended from a deified ruler of Sabaragamuwa named Sumana.
  • The Sunnakkara Kula (Also known as Hunu) descended from the traditional architects and engineers of Sri Lanka.
  • The Kumbal Kula (also known as Badal, Badahela, etc.) descended from the first humans to graduate from wild men to humans who cooked their food in clay pots. From this initial quantum leap, developed cultivation and other occupations.
  • The Bathgama caste is descended from the original pre-Vijayan, Yakka (also called Yaksha) inhabitants of Sri Lanka.
  • The Govi Caste, according to the Janawamsayaa and other sources, sprung from the feet of Brahma. The modern Govigama caste is an identity created during the British period by the De Saram Mudaliar family of mixed origins. Many successful people of unknown provenance joined the Govigama group during the British period.
  • Several other castes trace their origin to the guilds that arrived with the sacred Bodhi tree.

So, not a single Sinhalese caste has an origin story connecting it to Vijaya or a beastly lion ancestor. According to the Mahavamsa, the term Sinhala could be applied only to the first royal family of Vijaya and not to the population at large. Also, according to the chronicles, Vijaya did not sire a successor.

Whatever it be, the lore of Vijaya as told in the Mahavamsa brings to light the fact that the Sinhalese ‘race’ is not indigenous to the island but descended from many ethnic groups inherent to India.

→ Next: Part 1 – Sinhabahu

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Prayer Beads: The Buddhist Japa mala


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Myself . 

By T. V. Antony Raj .

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Digital StillCamera

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Buddhism is a way of life that got transformed into a religion. It is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Gautama Buddha, Shakyamuni, or simply as the Buddha. The Buddha, meaning “the awakened one” lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent between the 6th and 4th centuries BC.

According to Dīpavaṃsa, the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka, Buddhism was introduced into the island during the reign of Sri Lanka’s King Devanampiya Tissa (307 BC to 267 BC) by Venerable Mahinda, the son of the great Indian Emperor Ashoka.

Around 228 BC, Sohn Uttar Sthavira, one of the royal monks of Emperor Ashoka came to Suvarnabhumi (or Burma, the present day Myanmar) with few other monks carrying Buddhist sacred texts.

Buddhism was introduced into China during the reign Emperor Ming (58-75 AD).

In 372 AD, about 800 years after the death of the historical Gautama Buddha, Buddhism was introduced to Korea from Former Qin, a state of the Sixteen Kingdoms in China.

Buddhism took root in Japan during the Kofun period (250 to 538 AD).

During the reign of King Thothori Nyantsen (5th century AD), a basket of Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit arrived in Tibet from India which were not translated into Tibetan until the reign of king Songtsän Gampo (618-649 AD) who had married a Chinese Tang Dynasty Buddhist princess and a Nepalese Buddhist princess, named Bhrikuti.

Eventually, Buddhism became the established religion in these countries.

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Tibetan Buddhist 108 Ox Bone Skull Prayer Beads Mala
Tibetan Buddhist 108 Ox Bone Skull Prayer Beads Mala

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The Buddhists in India adopted the Hindu practice of using Japa mala for repeating mantras or counting breaths. As Buddhism spread to other eastern countries so did Japa mala for meditation. They also used the Japa mala as a divination tool.

The voices of groups of monks chanting together resonate from the Buddhist monasteries in a continual monotonous murmuring. Chanting with a string of 108 prayer beads helps the Buddhist faithful to reach an interior state of supreme reality beyond time and place.

Like the Hindu Japa mala, the Buddhist Japa mala too are usually composed of 108 beads or divisions of that number, 54 or 27. The 108 beads represent the number of worldly desires or negative emotions that must be overcome before attaining nirvana. Buddhists believe that saying a mantra for each fleshly failing will purify the supplicant.

The Buddhist Japa malas are made of sandalwood, seeds, stones, or inlaid animal bone.

Burmese Buddhist monks prefer strings of black lacquered beads.

In Tibet, Japa malas of inlaid bone originally included the skeleton parts of revered monks, to remind their users to live lives worthy of the next level of enlightenment. Today’s bone malas are made of yak bone, which is sometimes inlaid with turquoise and coral.

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Buddhist 27-bead wrist malas
Buddhist 27-beads wrist malas

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Smaller 27-bead wrist malas were created mainly to prevent the prayer beads from touching the ground during prostrations.

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Prayer Beads in Major Religions


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj .

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In many major religions and cultures, the device most used to help devotees to pray and meditate is the strand of prayer beads. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population meditate or pray with beads.

Hindu/Buddhist 108-bead mala of  jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.
Hindu/Buddhist 108-bead mala of jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.

Many scholars admit that the use of prayer beads originated with the Hindus in ancient India,and the Hindu or Buddhist mala is the great mother of rosaries. From India and the Himalayan kingdoms, the prayer beads traveled east to China and Japan, and to the west to Africa and Europe, where it evolved into the Islamic Subha, the Christian rosary, the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope, and the secular worry beads used throughout Greece and the Middle East.

Catholic Rosary
Roman Catholic Rosary

Traditionally, the prayer beads have consisted of strings of similarly sized beads, seeds, knots, or even rose petals and beads made from crushed roses, from which we get the word “rosary.” In Latin the term “rosarium” means ‘crown of roses’ or ‘garland of roses.’ The Roman Catholics sometimes write the word ‘rosary’ with an initial capital as ‘Rosary.’

Since counting prayers were initially so important, each religion embracing the use of prayer beads developed its own symbolic structure to follow. In addition to helping keep one’s place in structured prayers, the prayer beads also symbolize the commitment to spiritual life. With its circular form, a string of beads represents the interconnectedness of all who pray.

Common to many strands of prayer beads is the number nine. Greatest of the single-digit numerals, nine symbolizes completion. Where the numbers do not add up to nine, they are often divisible by three, symbolic of the trinity in Hinduism (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva), the three central concepts of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and the trinity in Christianity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).

In addition to their use in the religious rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, the prayer beads find a place in the spiritual practices of cultures as diverse as the African Masai, Native Americans, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy.

Eastern-Orthodox Prayer Rope
Eastern-Orthodox Prayer Rope

Many similar prayer practices exist in various other Christian communities, each with its own set of prescribed prayers and its own form of prayer beads or prayer rope. These other devotions and their associated beads are usually called “chaplets”. The rosary is sometimes used by other Christians, especially in Lutheranism, the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Church.

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Rights activists hit out at attacks on Sri Lankans


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By V.P. Raghu

March 20, 2013 – Deccan Chronicle

Chennai: The attacks by fringe groups on Sri Lankans arriving in Tamil Nadu, in the name of protests against human rights violations against island Tamils, has drawn criticism from rights activists in the state.

At least five cases of attacks on visiting Lankans were reported in the state in the last one month. This is apart from the attack on Sri Lankan institutions in Tamil Nadu. “I condemn such acts. Such kind of violence cannot be justified. These acts of terror against individuals should not be tolerated,” noted Dr. V. Suresh, national general secretary, PUCL.

Echoing Suresh’s views, another human rights activist, A Marx, said nothing could be gained by attacking visiting tourists and Buddhist monks. “While students are taking the protest in the right direction, some groups are indulging in violence,” noted Marx. These violent groups fear that the students will push them out of the protest arena, he said, adding, “So, to stay in the picture, they indulge in violence, which is highly condemnable.”

Attack on Buddhist Monks from Sri Lanka
Tamilnadu Police accompanying Buddhist monks and pilgrims from Chennai Central railway station up to Gudur in the state of Andhra Pradesh to ensure their safety. (Photo: dinakaran.com)

Pointing out that all Sri Lankans of Sinhalese origin, are not anti- Tamil, Suresh said many Sinhalese human rights activists had been fighting for the Lankan Tamils’ cause for years. “The house of senior lawyer J. C. Weliamuna was bombed for supporting Tamils in Lanka,” he recalled.

A senior official from Tamil Nadu police said almost all the accused in these cases had been arrested. “11 persons were arrested in the case of February 21 attack on Sri Lankan MP’s vehicle in Nagapattinam.

In connection with the attack on the Lankan monk on March 16 at Thanjavur, 12 persons were arrested. All the three persons connected with the attack on the Buddhist monk at Chennai central station on Monday, were secured,” the official pointed out.

In Trichy on February 26, the police had to intervene when a bus carrying Sri Lankan nationals was targeted. Similarly on March 3, vehicles carrying Sri Lankans from Chennai airport to Egmore were blocked on GST Road by a group. The police had to escort the Lankans to their destination.

Re-posted from Deccan Chronicle

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Politically Motivated Activists Bring Shame to Tamils of Tamilnadu


Here is the news that appeared in the Deccan Chronicle on March 17, 2013.
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Lankan monk roughed up in Thanjavur temple

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Student Monk  from Sti Lanka roughed up at Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur, Tamilnadu, India.
Student Monk from Sti Lanka roughed up at Brahadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur, Tamilnadu, India. (Photo: Deccan Chronicle)

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Thanjavur: A Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, currently pursuing archaeological studies in Delhi University, was rou­ghed up by some activists of pro-Tamil Eelam outfits at the world renowned Big Temple here on Saturday.

The Lankan had come here as part of a 20-member team, comprising students of postgraduate diploma in archaeology in Delhi University, on a study tour to the 1,000-year-old Brahadeeswarar temple.

As the students were going around Big Temple, a group of activists belonging to various outfits, including the MDMK and Naam Tamizhar Katchi, singled out the Sri Lankan national, clad in saffron robes, and beat him up, the police said. The attackers also raised slogans demanding that he leave Tamil Nadu immediately.

Besides the lone Sri Lan­kan, four Myanmaris were also part of the team while others were Indians, sour­ces said.

The monk was escorted safely to the local archaeological office from where the students left in a van to Tiruchy en route to Chennai. But, when the van was nearing Tiruchy, some unidentified persons pelted stones and slippers on it near Ariyamangalam. Though the van was damaged, the occupants escaped unhurt.

The police escorted the visiting students to the airport. Later, the Sri Lankan national left for Chennai by flight.

Twelve activists were taken into custody in connection with the incident.

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Video – Here is a video clip posted on Nakkheeran Web TV:

 

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Deccan Chronicle – Monday, March 18, 2013

Attack on Mahabodhi society warded off

Police personnel deployed in front of Mahabodhi society in Egmore after a group of men tried to attack the building. (Photo - Deccan Chronicle)
Police personnel deployed in front of Mahabodhi society in Egmore after a group of men tried to attack the building. (Photo: Deccan Chronicle)

Chennai: In yet another attack on Sri Lanka-linked establishments in Tamil Nadu, a group of men tried to vandalise the Mahabodhi society in Egmore on Sunday.

The police arrested 18 cadres of Naam Tamilar Katchi in connection with the attempt to break into the society office in Kennet Lane opposite the city police commissioner’s office. Anticipating trouble, city police had deployed a small team of armed police to guard the society.

According to eyewitnesses, a group of around 20 people reached Kennet Lane around noon and broke open the lock of a gate of the society.

“There were three only policemen who, however, prevented the protesters from doing further damage even as they sought additional personnel to handle the situation. Over 50 policemen were rushed to the spot.

The agitators were picked up before they could enter the society building where a number of visiting Sri Lankans, mostly Buddhist monks, stay on their visits to the city,” the police said. All arrested were remanded to judicial custody.

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Was the Rakhine Buddhist Woman Raped or Married by a Rohingya Muslim Man?


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a diverse ethnic and religious make-up. Now, there are at least 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in the country. However, they are not recognized as one of its ethnic group by the government.

According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. In 1982, the military junta stripped off all citizen rights of the Rohingyas through a so-called “Citizenship Law” thus making them the only stateless community of the world.

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A man walks through a neighborhood that was burnt in recent violence in Sittwe, June 16, 2012.
A man walks through a neighborhood that was burnt in recent violence in Sittwe, June 16, 2012.

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In late May this year, sectarian violence erupted between Buddhists and Rohingyas in the Rakhine (or Arakan) province of Western Myanmar.

We are faced with conflicting reports from all quarters.

According to “Voice of America,” the violence broke out in late May after three Muslim men were accused of raping and murdering a young Buddhist woman and 10 Muslims were killed in an apparent revenge attack.

However, according to Pakistan’s “The News,” Intikhab Alam Suri, President, Human Rights Network says that on May 28, a Buddhist girl embraced Islam and married a Muslim man. This infuriated the Buddhist community. They resorted to vengeance. They stopped a bus carrying Muslim pilgrims and killed some of them.

Which version is true?

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Thein Sein, President of Myanmar
Thein Sein, President of Myanmar

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No one knows for sure how many died in this ethnic violence. President Thein Sein dismissed such speculations in comments carried by the state-controlled “New Light of Myanmar.” He said he was “disheartened by the hairsplitting of the media.” He insisted that only 77 people – 31 Rakhine Buddhists and 46 Rohingya Muslims – have died. However, some rights groups and media reports suggest the figure may be higher.

The issue has prompted a wave of criticism by Muslim and non-Muslims the world over. Some view the conflict as a case of religious persecution against the Muslims. The Saudi-based Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also urged a probe into the violence.

Rights groups have also called for Burma to do more to protect the Rohingya. Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Burmese security forces have committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against the group in the aftermath of the sectarian violence.

Who are these Rohingyas?

According to Jahiruddin Ahmed and Nazir Ahmed, former president and Secretary of Arakan Muslim Conference the Rohingyas are descendants of the inhabitants of Ruha in Afghanistan.

Some historians and Rohingya writer Mohammed Khalilur Rahman trace the history of Rohingyas way back to the 8th century CE Arabs.

The Arabs and Persians were enterprising seafarers and Islam gave a new impetus to their trade  by using sea-routes. Since the 7th century, when South-East Asian trade route fell into their hands, they controlled the maritime trade between the Red Sea and China. They carried on trade with many countries, including Arakan and Burma. From the 8th century, like those in western India, there were Arab Muslim settlements on Arakan and Chittagong coasts, and in Burma and the other eastern countries.

The Muslim settlers brought with them the religion of Islam. Without any inhibitions, they intermarried and intermixed with the native women of Arakan. The kings of Arakan who wanted to increase the population of the country encouraged the practice of intermarriage. In “Islamic Culture, Vol X, No. 3, July, 1936, p.423.” we find:

“The Muslim settlers freely intermarried and intermixed with the woman of Arakan who changed their religion and became Muslims. The practice of intermarriage was encouraged by the kings of Arakan who wanted to increase the population of the county. It was a long established Arakanese and Burmese custom to provide with wives all foreigners who were forced to make a prolonged stay in the land either by shipwreck or for commercial reasons, but no foreigner was allowed to take with him his children of such mixed marriage or his wife when he left the country.”

M.A. Ghaffar, in his work “My Activities in Parliament and Outside”, Part II, P.28. states:

“They adopted the nationality of their wives to whom they transferred their properties.”

Thus, Islam became a living force in Arakan.

In 1799, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton published an article titled “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire.” In it, he states:

“I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan…”

After King Narameikhla (1430–1434) retained his throne with the help of the Sultan of Bengal of that time, Indian Muslims of Bengal started arriving in Rakhine.

According to another historian, Dr. Maung Maung, there is no such word as Rohingya to be found in the census survey conducted by the British in 1824. The British census of 1891 reported 58,255 Muslims in Arakan. By 1911, the Muslim population increased to 178,647.

During the British Colonial rule, a large number of Bengali farmers migrated to the fertile valleys of Arakan. The waves of migration were primarily due to the requirement of cheap labor from British India to work in the paddy fields. Immigrants from Bengal, mainly from the Chittagong region moved en masse into western townships of Arakan. Migration of Indians into Burma was not just restricted to Arakan.

A Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U writes:

“At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily. In 1927, immigration reached its peak with 480,000 people. Rangoon outweighed New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year.”

By then, in most of the large cities in Burma, Rangoon, Akyab, Bassein, Moulmein, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The indigenous Burmese felt helpless under the British rule, and reacted against the Indians with a “racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear.”

The immigration’s impact was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities were aware of the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas. They formed a special Investigation Commission led by James Ester, and Tin Tut to study the issue of Muslim immigration in the Rakhine state. The commission recommended securing the border; however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.

Burmese historians like Khin Maung Saw have claimed that before 1950s, the term Rohingya has never appeared in Burmese history. This observation coincides with that of a historian Aye Chan from Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan. He states that the term Rohingya was created in 1950s by the descendants of Bengalis, who migrated into Arakan during the Colonial Era. He further argued that the term cannot be found in any historical source in any language before 1950s. However, he stated that it did not mean Muslim communities have not existed in Arakan before 1824.

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