BOOK EXCERPT

Are the Sinhalese people descendants of Bengali and Odiya sea merchants?

A history of the Indian Ocean suggests as much, citing genetic studies as well as legends.

The injection of Indian DNA into Australia around 2000 BC shows that people living on India’s eastern seaboard were capable of sailing long distances even before the Iron Age. Archaeologists have found remains of a possible river port at a place called Golbai Sasan in Odisha that dates back to 2300 BC. However, there is a distinct boom in coastal trade from around 800 BC. At the heart of this maritime boom was Kalinga (roughly modern Odisha) and the adjoining areas of West Bengal.

The remains of many ancient ports have been found all along the coast between the western-most mouth of the Ganga and Chilika lake. The river connected the sea ports to the kingdoms of the interior while the lake, which has an outlet to the sea, acted as a safe harbour. You will find bits of ancient pottery strewn everywhere if you walk along the banks of Chilika lake.

The Bengali-Odiya mariners were not capable of sailing directly across the Indian Ocean at this early stage. Instead, they would have hugged the shore and traded their way down the Andhra and Tamil coast. At some stage they seem to have sailed across to Sri Lanka and begun to settle there.

Genetic studies have confirmed that the island was already inhabited by the ancestors of the Vedda, a small tribe that has long been suspected of being the original inhabitants. They are probably descendants of people who had migrated here before the Great Flood separated them from the mainland. The new migrants from eastern India, however, would soon become the dominant population – the Sinhalese.

The Mahavamsa, an epic written in Pali, tells the founding myth of how the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka. It is said that at the beginning of the sixth century BC, the king of Vanga (i.e., Bengal) had a beautiful daughter who was kidnapped by a powerful lion. He kept the princess prisoner in a cave and had a son and daughter by her. The son, Sinhabahu, grew up to be a strong lad. One day, when the lion was away, he broke open the cave-prison and escaped with his mother and sister. The lion followed in hot pursuit. Eventually, after several adventures, Sinhabahu faced his father and killed him.

Sinhabahu then established a kingdom and built a capital city Sinhapura which means Lion City (notice that this is derived from the same etymological roots as Singapore). Many years passed and Sinhabahu had a son called Vijaya who turned out to be a violent lout and a disgrace to the family. My guess is that he inherited that from the paternal grandfather. After hearing repeated complaints from his subjects, King Sinhabahu eventually decided to banish Vijaya and 700 of his supporters.

So, Vijaya sailed south and landed in Sri Lanka. There he faced some resistance from the locals, presumably the Vedda, led by a woman called Kuveni. However, Vijaya prevailed and established his kingdom. The Mahavamsa tells us that King Vijaya now gave up his earlier erratic behaviour and ruled responsibly for thirty-eight years. He also married a Tamil princess from the Pandya clan.

The legend of Prince Vijaya should not be taken literally; I have always harboured some doubts about the bit related to the lion kidnapping the princess. Nevertheless, the epic makes it clear that the Sinhalese retained a memory of their Bengali-Odiya origins when the Mahavamsa was composed and compiled almost a thousand years later.

The Sinhalese link to eastern India matches genetic, linguistic and cultural evidence and survives in many little ways. For example, the lion is an important symbol of the Sinhalese people; they are literally the Lion People. One finds this echoed in Odisha which remains a major centre for the worship of Narasimha (the god Vishnu as half-lion and half-man).

The town of Puri is famous for the temple of Jagannath, another form of Vishnu, but also has a very ancient temple to Narasimha and there are several rituals where the latter is given precedence to this day. Similarly, in Bengal, the goddess Durga is almost always depicted as riding a lion. In other words, the lion on the Sri Lanka flag and Durga’s lion share the same cultural origins.

The clinching evidence on the origins of the Sinhalese, however, comes from another custom. Robert Knox, an Englishman who spent many years in Sri Lanka in the seventeenth century, made the following observation: “In their infancy they have names whereby one may be called and distinguished from the other; but, when they come to years, it is an affront and shame to them, either men or women, to be called by those names.” Bengali and Odiya readers will know exactly what this means.

Excerpted with permission from The Ocean Of Churn: How The Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Sanjeev Sanyal, Penguin Viking.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.