When three years back, a Sri Lankan envoy sought Indian support on the basis of the claim that the Sinhalese people are descendents of Bengalis and Odias, there was an upsurge of perplexity and outrage among large sections of the Indian population. However, subsequent research has shown that the Sinhalese, who make up about 75 per cent of the Sri Lankan population might very well have descended from inhabitants of ancient East India.
The “Mahavamsa”, arguably the greatest chronicle of Sri Lanka, narrates an interesting episode that marks the origin of the Sinhalese people. As per the mythological record, the foundation stone of the Sinhalese community was laid by King Vijaya who had travelled there from North-West India in 543 BC and founded the first Sinhalese town by the name of Tambapani. One of the murals at the Ajanta caves carry an elaborate depiction of King Vijaya’s travel to the Sinhalese town.
King Vijaya was the son of Sihabahu the ruler of Sihapura in Gujarat. Sihabahu’s mother in turn was the daughter of the king of Kalinga in Eastern India. Legend goes that she conceived Sihabahu (etymologically meaning lion’s arm) with a lion who had kidnapped her.
In a recent book, “The ocean of churn: How the Indian ocean shaped human history”, writer Sanjiv Sanyal remarks that the symbol of the lion that is so important among the Sinhalese is equally revered among the Odiyas and Bengalis. While the Narasimha (God Vishnu as half man and half lion) is worshipped in Odisha, among Bengalis the image of Goddess Durga is incomplete without the lion upon which she rides. In the opinion of Sanyal, the image of the lion on the Sri Lankan flag and the religious symbolism of the lion in Odisha and Bengal have the same cultural origins.
But it is not just mythology that reflects upon this connection. In his study titled “Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan Populations”, Gautam Kumar Kshatriya found that 25.41 per cent of the genetic make up on the Sinhalese population was contributed by the Bengalis. Linguistically too, scholars have for long remarked upon the Indo-Aryan origins of the Sinhalese speech.