Accepted paper:

Social identity and self-representation in colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka


Maurice Said (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyses cosmology and self-representation among Sinhalese in colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka, through the transformation and reinterpretation of the practice of Buddhism, demonology and sorcery.

Paper long abstract:

This paper analyses the changes in the local practice of Buddhism and demonology in Sri Lanka as a result of British colonialism, as well as its subsequent transformation and reinterpretation by Colonel S. Olcott and the Theosophist society (and their rejection of demonology and sorcery) during the Buddhist revival period in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I look at the ways in which Buddhism and demonology have been and are represented and interpreted by various actors and social classes in Sri Lanka. My analyses also draws on narratives collected from ongoing fieldwork in the southern district of Matara; an area notorious for the widespread practice of sorcery and demonology. I argue that the practice of sorcery and demonology in Matara district in particular, is not simply an extension of bygone rituals and tradition, but rather are practices that have evolved to incorporate contemporary objects, symbols and scenarios. The Buddhist revival brought about a reinterpretation and a new way of conceptualising ideas of nationalism, the state and social identity. Urban Sri Lankans refer to the practice of sorcery and demonology in the south (particularly Matara), as a form of backward traditionalism that appeals only to the lower class. Rather than being disconnected from the urban centres of modernity, the practice of sorcery and demonology are integral components in the definition of Sinhalese cosmology. Thus, by analysing 'self-exotisation', I am probing the way Sinhalese represent themselves and are in turn represented.

panel G22
Exoticisation, self-exoticisation: agency, identity and transformation