Timely Tome that Fills Void
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
Today, India is known as the holy land for Buddhists all over the world as it is the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, which is an archaeologically and historically proven fact. Buddha’s birthplace, places where he lived, and places where his disciples lived have all been discovered and identified. Emperor Asoka, who is known as Devanampiyadasi in his own edicts, has now been identified including many of his stupas and artefacts. Today, India holds great pride as the birth land of Buddhism and Gautama Buddha is considered one of the greatest sons of India.
However, until the 19th century ‘Buddhist India’ was unknown to the world. The chapter of Buddhism was wiped off from the land of its origin and hardly anyone could find a trace of Buddhism in India after the 12th century. For about six centuries, the chapter of Buddhism in India was deeply buried in blood, dust, and hatred. It was during the 19th century that the British who ruled over India ‘rediscovered’ the lost legacy of India and by doing so, one by one they completed the jigsaw puzzle of India’s hidden past. These adventurous people who rediscovered India are known as the Orientalists.
The tale of the Orientalists, told by Charles Allen
The tale of these Orientalists and their remarkable discoveries are fantastically documented by British writer and historian Charles Allen (1940 - 2020) in his 2002 published book, The Buddha and the Sahibs; The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion. I first read the original book when I was a university student and was stunned by the great adventures of the sahibs or the Orientalists. The book was no less than The Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.
The Sinhala translation
Now, Sinhala readers are greatly fortunate to read this book as it was translated into Sinhala as Buddhabhumi Alokanaya, by Manel Jayamanna (published by Sarasavi Publishers) in 2021. When I first laid my hands and eyes on this book, the translation (which is a heavy book of 449 pages), I was slightly sceptical for a second as this was the first work of the translator.
Soon I was filled with guilt, as I read page by page, her translation skills showed no signs of an amateur. Justice was done to the original work. The sense of adventure similar to the sense of Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamun is not lessened even with an ounce in the Sinhala translation. The translation has the ability to hook the reader from page one and you don’t feel like putting the book away until you finish reading it. Thus, I could say the magic of the original work by Allen is there in the translation.
Fulfilling a timely need as well as a great void
Buddhabhumi Alokanaya is a book that fulfils a great timely requirement. Today, the history of Sri Lanka, as well as the history of Buddhism, is being greatly distorted, misinterpreted, and twisted by many. This has become a reason of concern as the agendas behind those who dispute the history of Buddhism, purposely, are vicious and lead to greater issues (we discussed in detail the grave issues created by these distortions in two of our previous articles titled Distortion of History and Jain Distortion).
Therefore, this book serves as an insight and also acts as a preface to the ‘Distortion of History Movement’ that we witness today. Why I said so is that through a little research I was enlightened that this book has faced quite negative reviews and a certain amount of controversy among certain scholars and reviewers in India, accusing the book to be presenting false information. They say that Allen overemphasises Shashanka’s destruction of the Mahabodhi temple and that Allen has given wrong dates for the years of some of the discoveries. However, as historical and archaeological facts would reveal, Shashanka’s spiteful work caused great damage to Buddhism in India which is greatly far beyond what the Westerners have done. It was Prof. Edward Wadie Said (1935 - 2003) that accused the Orientalists.
Allen in his book explains how Prof. Said and his followers are blind to the destructive work of the Brahmanic religious fanatics whose actions resulted in wiping off Buddhism from its land of origin, while they create a negative picture about the Orientalists. These absurd allegations seem to be echoing in the voices of those in Sri Lanka that claim India is not the birthplace of Buddha. I must say that by translating this into Sinhala language Jayamanna has fulfilled a timely need as now Sinhala readers have the opportunity to learn and experience how Buddhist India was rediscovered and recreated during the 19th century.
The translation also fills a void in Sri Lanka’s book world. We lack Sinhala translations of archaeology explorations and expeditions written as adventurous works. Thus, Buddhabhumi Alokanaya is a book for Sinhala readers who can experience an adventurous world of archaeologists and historians that discover a long-lost world, which is flavoured with an ‘Indiana Jones essence.’ What would have been the fate of Buddhism in Asia, especially in India and Sri Lanka, if the Orientalists did not exist, is the curious question that will trouble the mind of the reader of this book; maybe Buddhism would have been long gone, hidden and faded away beneath time and dust.
Manel Jayamanna, a past pupil of Sumana Girls’ School, Rathnapura, completed her first degree in Commerce in 1969 from the University of Peradeniya and completed her MA in 1978 from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the National Committee on Women, Sri Lanka. Buddhabhumi Alokanaya marks her first footsteps into the world of literature.