Koneswaran, Tenavaram Temples and God Upulvan

This posted started off as a reply to Siddarth’s comment and his visit to two temples in Sri Lanka.

First, three old Sinhala words out of many. Gokkana, DeviNuwara, Upulvan

Gokkana. The old Sinhala name for Trincomalee. Trincomallee is Derived from the recent name, Tri-Kona-Malaya. Malaya (=Malai in Tamil) is an old word used for hill/mountain. eg the Hill country is Malaya Desaya and first ref to that term that I know around 1BC. I suspect that word is from Pali. The common sinhalese word is Kanda for mountain. eg Kanda-Uda-Rata-Nuwara Hill-Top-Country-City. Now in English Kandy and in Sinhala Nuwara. Is Kanda Tamil or really old Sinhala? Who knows,

Dondara: Devapura and Devanagara. In Sinhalese it has been referred to as Devundara and Devinuwara, meaning City of Gods and Devundara is Southern most point in Sri Lanka
Until the late 16th century a historic temple port town complex housed merchants from around Asia. . A multi-religious site, its primary deity was the Buddhist god Upulvan and at its zenith was one of the most celebrated religious sites of the island, containing a thousand statues of the various sects of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Upulvan*  Upul=Dark Blue Van=Vanna (pali)=Varna. Sinhala: උපුල්වන් ‍දෙවියෝ, Pali: Uppalavanna; Sanskrit: Utpalvarna. Now used to mean Vishnu. First mentioned in Mahavamsa as Vijaya (500 BC) being blessed by god Upulvan (see foot note 2) on arrival in Sri Lanka. Upulvan is considered the god whom the Buddha entrusted with the guardianship of Sri Lanka and Buddhism in the country. At the end of the 15th century, god Upulvan was identified with god Vishnu of Hinduism. Thereafter images of Upulvan as Vishnu were set beside the images of Buddha

So now to the Temples Tenavaram in Dondra/Devundara and Koneswaram in Trinco/Gokkana

Koneswaram in Gokkana
Apparently King Mahasen (277-304 AD) destroyed the Hindu Temple.  According to the Mahavamsa to quote
and founded three viharas, destroying temples of the (brahmanical) gods: the Gokanna (vihara), (and another vihara) in Erakavilla, (and a third) in the village of the Brahman Kalanda;13

King Mahasen, initially a Mahayanist and later went back to Theravada. Built 16 reservoirs including Minneriya. Minneriya reservoir is now the site of the largest gathering of Elephants. Mahasen was regarded as a god or deity, and was called Minneri Deviyo (God of Minneriya).
In that same chapter “At the place of the yakkha Kalavela14 he built a thupa”, which reiterates the claim the Yakkas were real people.

The deep ocean where Portuguese are reputed to topple the Temple, there are Buddhist and Hindu ruins
Just a few years later in 1956, the famous Arthur C Clarke uncovered underwater masonry, architectural and idol images of the original temple. In his 1957 book ‘the Reefs of Taprobane’, Clarke identified at least 3 Hindu temples as having been build on or around Swami rock over the millennia. At that time, he said they were probably the most photographed underwater ruins in the world.
Arthur C Clarke description of first sights underwater.
Recent Dive clip


Tenavaram in Dondra/Devundara/DeviNuwara.
DeviNuwara is dotted with many temples, Buddhist and Hindu. Pothgul and Galge are the lesser known but ancient buildings.
Devundara is multi-religious complex, the Buddhist temple and the Upulvan devale (shrine) was started by King Dappula II in the 7th century AD.

*I suspect a lot of merging of pre Buddhist gods with Hindu Gods. Much like the dynamics in the Caribbean African Gods being merged with Catholic Saints.  See Link below for synopsis.


To the victors go the glory!

I have written an introductory post (it’s free), Entering Steppelandia: pop. 7.7 billion, to a series of posts (mostly paid) that I will write about the Eurasian steppe. So I’m thinking and reading a lot about this topic. This is relevant to “Brown Pundits” because we subcontinental people have been stamped by the steppe.

First, there were the Indo-Aryans. About 15% of the ancestry of modern South Asians comes from these people (averaged across region and caste). Then there were the Iron Age Iranian pastoralists, Scythians, and assorted other related groups. There is no strong evidence right now of a major genetic impact, but I think the statistical power is not such that I can definitively ignore this possibility.

Finally, there are the Muslims. They had the least impact. But they are most reviled. Why?

They lost.  The lesson is to not lose. The rest is commentary.


The Mughals!

The Brown Pundits Clubhouse channel hosted a discussion on “the Mughals” yesterday that went on for a while. There seem to be two polarized extreme views

1) The Mughals were great Indians! Long live the Mughals.

2) The Mughals were genocidal colonizers and induced inter-generational trauma.

Most people occupy a position in the middle. As for myself, I think it is clear that the Mughals were to some extent an alien and occupying influence because that is how they viewed themselves more, or less. They were Turanian Muslims of Turco-Mongol provenance. No matter how much Rajput or Persian blood they had, their paternal lineage came down from the Turk Timur. The maternal lineage of Babur was Genghiside. If India had been mostly Islamicized this would have changed. But it wasn’t. Despite the deep cultural synthesis between Mughal culture and that of India and their indigenization of the generations, there remained a connection between ashraf Muslims and Persia and Central Asia. They were not equivalent to Muslim Bengali peasants or Ismaili traders in Gujurat.

And yet the flip side of this is that the Mughals, and Muslims as a whole, in particular Turks, drove change within Indian society. To some extent, the native reaction and response in the dialectical synthesis can only be understood in the light of the Islamic shock. More generally, an Islamicate civilization evolved that extended beyond the Mughals and included the Rajputs and Marathas (reciprocally, the Mughals internalized many Rajput values, but this is to be expected due to their long residence in India and intermarriage with Rajputs).

Those Hindus who are traumatized by the impact of Islam are free to feel this way, but I am genuinely curious about an Indian culture stripped away of Islamic influence. What would that look like? Perhaps Odisha and Sri Lanka might come close?

More generally, the excited and emotional response of both Hindus and Muslims and their inability to engage in epoché makes me think that the prospects for deeper analysis are poor. Emotion has reason by the leash.


On the historicity of the Vedas

BPer Mukunda and I were having a discussion on Twitter, which I want to elevate and push to the blog, because it’s somewhat important.

When I was young (20th century) I read stuff about how the Indo-Aryans described the natives of the subcontinent as dark and “snub-nosed.” That their arrival in some ways was a meeting of two different races.

In the 2000’s I read other books and works that suggested that actually, these descriptions were metaphorical. Terms like “dark” in other words reflect an ideological or tribal conflict, with the descriptions pointing to tropes that signal which side is evil and which side is good. This is not a crazy view. The anthropology is clear that a certain level of fictitious dehumanization occurs with inter-group conflict.

So I accepted this view and moved on with my life.

But in the 2010’s things changed. I am now convinced that 3,000-4,000 years ago a people who resembled what we would term “white” expanded within the Indian subcontinent. If modern Armenians are white, then the Indo-Aryans were white. At least initially. In the subcontinent, they met a variety of people. Some of them, such as in Sindh, were of brownish complexion. Others, to the south and east, would have been considerably darker. I also assume that the Vedas were constructed in situ in the Indian subcontinent. That is, they reflect a milieu of people who were encountering the northwest of the subcontinent, and had recently traversed through BMAC (Indra may actually be a BMAC diety).

What’s the upshot here? I know think that the metaphorical view of the physical descriptions should be set next to the literal view. The reality is probably a mix. But the fact is that groups with very different physical appearances did interact in ancient India. The Aryans were almost certainly very light-skinned, with “sharp features”, in comparison to many of the people they encountered. Though one can construct hybrid scenarios, where Indo-Aryan enemies were described in inaccurate ways precisely because those tropes were associated with tribes and peoples the Indo-Aryans had conquered.

Someone who has deep knowledge of the Vedas in Sanskrit and genetics needs to look into this. That’s obviously not me.


The (Original Brown) Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game

Galwan Valley, Pangong Lake, Karakoram Pass, Doklam Plateau, Mishmi Hills. These obscure geographical features and landmarks in the high Himalayas separating India from China have suddenly made their way back into the public consciousness. The catalyst this time is the increased friction between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. I use the phrases “way back” and “this time” deliberately. To scholars and enthusiasts of the Great Game, these names and the surrounding context are eerily familiar: shadow boxing between an ascendant, assertive superpower (Tsarist Russia) trying to throw its weight around in its immediate neighbourhood and an ostensibly weaker but rising middling power (British India) trying to protect its interest in its backyard.

The original Great Game, which played out over the course of the nineteenth century between the British Indian and Russian Empires in South and Central Asia, had all the characteristics of a bestselling novel, filled with action, adventure and intrigue. It also had its set of glamorous characters: Sir Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Burnes- the famous British spy with oodles of charm and dashing good looks to boot- was the James Bond of his era. He was matched on the Russian side by Captain Yan Vitkevich, the enigmatic Polish-Lithuanian orientalist and explorer. Mercifully, there was very little by way of direct bloodshed between the principal protagonists, although things did come close to getting out of hand on a few occasions. No wonder the Russians evocatively called the contest “The Tournament of Shadows”.  It was compelling drama and the public- in Britain, India, Russia and beyond- lapped it up. The romance and zeitgeist of the times was captured by the great Victorian author Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel, Kim.

Continue reading “The (Original Brown) Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game”


The Sindhi homeland of the “Dravidians”

Peter Bellwood in First Farmers presents a hypothesis for the expansion of the Dravidian languages into southern India in the late Neolithic through the spread of an agro-pastoralist lifestyle through the western Deccan, pushing southward along the Arabian sea fringe. At the time I was skeptical, but now I am modestly confident that this is close to the reality.

There is always talk about “steppe” ancestry on this weblog. But there are groups that seem “enriched” from IVC ancestry, as judged by the Indus Periphery samples. The confidence is lower since we don’t have nearly as good a sample coverage…but I think I can pass on what we’ve seen so far: groups in southern Pakistan, non-Brahmin elites in South India, and some Sudra groups in Gujarat and Maharashtra, seem to be relatively enriched for IVC-like ancestry. Then there is the supposed existence of Dravidian toponyms in Sindh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. And, their total absence in the Gangetic plain.

There have been decades of debate about Brahui. I’ve looked closely at Brahui genetics, and they are no different from the Baloch. Combined with evidence from Y chromosomes (the Baloch and Brahui have some of the highest frequencies of haplogroups found in IVC-related ancient DNA), I doubt the thesis they are medieval intruders (if they are, their distinctive genes were totally replaced).

Genetically, we know that some southern tribes, such as the Pulliyar, have some IVC-related ancestry. But other groups, such as Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, have a lot more. How does this cline emerge? My conjecture is that there were several movements of “Dravidian” people from Sindh and Gujarat into southern India, simultaneous with the expansion of Vedic Aryans to the north into the Gangetic plain. The region the Vedic Aryans intruded upon, Punjab, was not inhabited by Dravidian speakers. Like Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley Civilization was probably multi-lingual, despite broad cultural affinities developed over time.


The scions of the priest kings

I was talking to a person of South Indian Brahmin origin today about their genetics. Over the course of the conversation, he showed me Y and mtDNA haplogroup types amongst his jati. The vast majority of the Y haplogroups were not R1a.

Brahmin groups in India seem to be about 15% to 30% steppe in their overall genome. But their Y chromosomes are usually 50% or so R1a1a-Z93. The lineage associated with Indo-Iranian pastoralists.

So what’s going on with the other haplogroups? For example, J2, L, C, G, and H?

From what I can see J2 and L are the next most frequent haplogroups after R1a1a-Z93. This tells us something. These are haplogroups found in ancient “Indus Periphery” samples. And, these two haplogroups are found at high concentrations in the northwest of the subcontinent.

It doesn’t take a {{{Brahmin}}} to connect the dots here. Some of the gotra as early as the Vedic period were almost certainly derived from high-status individuals in the post-IVC society. Warriors and priests in the fallen civilization of the IVC, which had likely degraded itself to a level of barbarism by the time the Indo-Aryans became ascendant.

I like to make jokes about “sons of Indra.” But let’s give the dasyu credit where it’s due: those Indians carrying J2 and L almost certainly descend from the men who build the great cities of yore. Their dominion was lost when their civilization fell, but they integrated themselves into the new order.


Sharing a continent

25% of humans live in the Indian subcontinent. 18.5% live in China. Together that’s 43.5% of the world’s population in the two great Asian civilizations. Not a trivial number in the 21st century, especially in a nascent multipolar world.

And yet the two societies often lack a deep awareness of each other, as opposed to an almost pathological fixation on the West, and in India’s case the world of Islam.

Indians are clearly geopolitically aware of China. Obsessed even. But aside from cultural exotica (e.g., the Chinese “eat everything”), there seems to be profound ignorance.

This is illustrated most clearly when I hear Indian intellectuals aver the proud continuous paganness of their civilization. Setting aside what “pagan” means, and its applicability to the Hindu religious tradition, the key here is a contrast with the world to the west, which was impacted by a great rupture. The people of Iraq have a written history that goes back 5,000 years, but the continuity between ancient and modern people of the region is culturally minimal. Modern inhabitants of Bagdhad know on some level that their ancestors were Sumerian, but for most of them their identity is wrapped up in their religion and the lives of the Prophet and his family, or for Christians that of Jesus.

This is not the case with the majority of Indian subcontinental people, whose religious traditions and cultural memory go back further, literally to the Bronze Age at the latest. The foundational mythological cycles which define Indian culture probably date to 1000 to 1500 BC. During this time Kassites ruled Babylonia, and the Assyrians were coming into their own. Until modern archaeology, these people were only names in the Bible or in Greek historians.

But this is not only true of India. These Chinese also look to the Bronze Age Shang dynasty, and in particular, the liminal Zhou, to set the terms of their modern culture. The ancient sage kings, who likely predate the Shang, are also held in cultural esteem.

Does any of this matter? I don’t honestly know. I’m American, not India or Chinese. But perhaps it might help on some level if these two civilization-states could understand and accept that they share in common having extremely deep cultural roots apart from the revelation of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.


History beyond the screaming

Last night I realized I’m not going to weigh in on history discussions on Twitter if they pertain to the Indian subcontinent. Even people who I know are not 13-year old incels behave totally emotionally and engage in shitposting posturing constantly. It’s really impossible to get a signal out of the discussion.

Indians and Pakistanis seem so intensively invested in various topics that it is literally and seriously impossible to get value out of any exchange, the swell of stupidity and bad faith (on all sides!) is so intense. There is a reality out there. There is a true history. But this is not what most of you really care about it, is it?

For example, reading India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 gives a nuanced and fully textured picture in outlines of the subcontinental elite in the premodern period. It aligns in broad sketches with what I know about human psychology and history elsewhere. But attempting to bring nuance seems like a fool’s errand in most of these debates.

Understanding the history of the Indian subcontinent is rewarding to me because there are comments here on the general human condition. I will not turn away from that. But, I do need to reflect on whether that is best done in solitude rather than engaging with the world “out here.”

Note: I don’t mind or care too much if particular truths are leveraged in some ideological manner. Rather, my suggestion is ideological priors are doing all the sifting of which truths are correct or not.