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Terraforming the Past: Buddhist Majoritarianism and the Sinhala Ravana Movement


Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 1200 characters including spaces)

Around the time of the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009, a curious reworking of the mythological origins of the victorious Sinhala Buddhist people began to emerge in books, newspapers, and television programs throughout the island. This new account displances conventional narratives concerning the earliest habitation of Sri Lanka, maintaining that the Sinhala people are in fact descendants of the demon-king Ravana, who ruled the island millennia ago. Noting the Sinhala Ravana movement's ideological adjacency to the Buddhist majoritarian rhetoric of the Rajapaksha political dynasty, this paper explores additional populist dimensions to the Ravana phenomenon, including its broad endorsement across social classes. I discuss this unique right-nationalist populist project in 21st century Sri Lanka, wherein the reclamation of Ravana's kingdom has emerged as a participatory public spectacle. Buddhist efforts to "terraform the past" I argue precipitated the 2013 demolition of portions of premises to a shrine to the Sufi saint Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (1076-1166) by the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry.