Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

On the Traditional Tamil Homeland

Facts to counter a 'fib'

Writing the history of the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka as a separate entity has a tradition of at least 500 years, beginning with the historiographical works like Vaiyaapaatal and Kailaayamaalai. Prior to that period, the conventional sources – the Buddhist chronicles on which the authoritative history of the Island is still based -  are not much helpful to understand the Tamil history. History is basically the capacity of a society in remembering its past. The mode of exerting this capacity differs from society to society. Hence, one must devise appropriate tools to reconstruct the history of a particular society. Saying that a particular society has no history, without going for an appropriate tool, as in the context of the Tamils, is a crime committed on that society, which is what that is being done by the Sri Lankan historians. Therefore, now we have to mainly turn towards the tools like archaeology, cultural anthropology, folk studies, historical linguistics etc. to understand the history of the Tamil society.

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Bernard Goonetilleke, the current Sri Lankan ambassador to the USA, in an opinion piece to the Washington Times (Feb. 17) has asserted:

“…The international community must be told that, beneath a plausible veneer, the demand for a separate state for Tamils of Sri Lanka is rooted in fiction. There never was at any time in Sri Lankan history "a traditional Tamil homeland" in the north and east of Sri Lanka, as claimed by the LTTE. If historically, the LTTE demand for a separate state is a downright fabrication, what is the case they can make to justify a separate state?”

Many would have noted that the Washington Times (sponsored by the Korean brand of Christian evangelism, founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon) has become a vehicle for Colombo’s propagandists of a Goebellsian grade. How the voices of Sinhala-Buddhist belligerence sing in chorus with the so-called "media arm of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church" deserves separate scrutiny. For now, I have no complaint as to Ambassador Goonetilleke being a distinguished gentleman, sweating hard to earn his bread. But, resembling the hapless nag Rocinante of Don Quixote immortalized by Cervantes (1547-1616), the Colombo breed of Rocinantes ably led by Gooneteilleke have been fed only with oat bran of one brand indigenous to Sri Lanka – i.e., the bloating Mahavamsa brand.

Robert Knox 1681 map of Ceylon [Sri Lanka]
Robert Knox 1681 map of Ceylon

I have a reason for highlighting the protagonist of Cervantes and his nag Rocinante in this Front Note. Some Cervantes scholars have long mused on the origin of the name Quixote. Dominique Aubier, according to Michael McGaha (Cervantes; Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America, 2004; vol.24, pp. 173-188), was the first to point out in 1966 that ‘qeshot’ means ‘truth’ or ‘certainty’ in the Aramaic language, the native tongue of Jesus Christ. Here is that prefatory sonnet dialogue between the two horses Babieca and Rocinante, that appears ahead of Part 1, Vol.1 of Don Quixote, to for the readers to savor. For the uninitiated, reference to ‘ass’ shouldn’t be meant as obscene. Here it refers to the beautiful braying mammal with two prominent ears, and not to a region of the human anatomy:

Babieca:  "How comes it, Rocinante, you're so lean?"
Rocinante:  "I'm underfed, with overwork I'm worn."
Babieca:  "But what becomes of all the hay and corn?"
Rocinante:  "My master gives me none; he's much too mean."
Babieca:  "Come, come, you show ill-breeding, sir, I ween; 'T is like an ass your master thus to scorn."
Rocinante:  He is an ass, will die an ass, an ass was born; Why, he's in love; what's what's plainer to be seen?"
Babieca:  "To be in love is folly?"—
Rocinante:  "No great sense."
Babieca:  "You're metaphysical."—
Rocinante:  "From want of food."
Babieca:  "Rail at the squire, then."—
Rocinante:  "Why, what's the good? I might indeed complain of him, I grant ye,  But, squire or master, where's the difference?  They're both as sorry hacks as Rocinante."

Thus, it may not be bad to serve some alternative diet to Colombo’s hapless Rocinantes occasionally. Somewhere along his education, Goonetilleke would have heard the name of Robert Knox, and his book ‘An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East Indies’, published in London in 1681. It has the distinction of being the first detailed account of Ceylon and the anthropology of people inhabiting the island in the English language. The British sailor Knox (1641-1720) was held captive in the island for 19 years.

Robert Knox 1681 book cover 'An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylan in the East-Indies'

To counter the fib of Colombo’s Rocinantes led by Bernard Goonetillekes and Dayan Jayatillekas, I provide the map which appeared in Knox’s 1681 book, that clearly shows the then existing boundaries of the Tamil homeland. I also have transcribed below a 12 page booklet authored by Ponnambalam Ragupathy (formerly of University of Jaffna) in 1986, derived from his 1983 Ph.D. thesis ‘Early Settlements in Jaffna: An Archaeological Survey.’ The ‘Select Reading’ list that appears at the end, containing citations to 9 previous works, is as in the original.

Tamil Social Formation in Sri Lanka: A Historical Outline

by Ponnampalam Ragupathy, MA, Ph.D.

[Publisher: R.S.Visakan, on behalf of the Institute of Research and Development, Madras, Feb.1986, 12pp]

Historiography: a Re-appraisal

Writing the history of the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka as a separate entity has a tradition of at least 500 years, beginning with the historiographical works like Vaiyaapaatal and Kailaayamaalai. Prior to that period, the conventional sources – the Buddhist chronicles on which the authoritative history of the Island is still based -  are not much helpful to understand the Tamil history. History is basically the capacity of a society in remembering its past. The mode of exerting this capacity differs from society to society. Hence, one must devise appropriate tools to reconstruct the history of a particular society. Saying that a particular society has no history, without going for an appropriate tool, as in the context of the Tamils, is a crime committed on that society, which is what that is being done by the Sri Lankan historians. Therefore, now we have to mainly turn towards the tools like archaeology, cultural anthropology, folk studies, historical linguistics etc. to understand the history of the Tamil society.

Tamil Social Formation in Sri Lanka : A Historical Outline

South Asia and Sri Lanka

Geologically, geographically and environmentally, the Island of Sri Lanka is a part and parcel of the South Asian subcontinent. The cultures – both Sinhala and Tamil -  that emerged in Sri Lanka fall within the South Asian frame and particularly within the South Indian frame because of proximity.

The development of Sinhala-Buddhist culture and the Tamil culture in Sri Lanka are parallel and identical with the development of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam cultures in South India. One can even cite a common stratum for these developments. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, a comparative study of these South Indian and Sri Lankan phenomena has not been even attempted.

Pre and Protohistoric Antecedents

The human habitation in Sri Lanka began with the prehistoric microlithic people who possibly migrated through a land bridge then existed from the South eastern coast of the present Tamilnadu. The earliest evidence of this culture in the Sri Lankan context has been now dated back to 28,000 BC. The next wave of migration and cultural impact were marked by the megalithic phase in protohistoric times, which was also essentially of a South Indian cultural stratum. These pre and protohistoric antecedents were an extension of the sequence that took place in the extreme peninsular India. By the dawn of history, during the time of Asoka, Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka as a cultural inspiration. This was the period when for the first time South Asia came under an imperial unity and Sri Lanka acknowledged it.

Ethnic Structure in Sri Lanka – Myth and Realities

There are no racial differences among Sinhalese, Tamils and the people of South India. But, around 6th century AD, the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka imagined a mass Aryan migration during protohistoric times, which they thought was the basis for the formation of the Sinhala-Buddhist society. This myth created in response to the then prevailing situation is unfortunately still the foundation for the authoritative history of the Island, conditioning the minds of the people. In reality, there were no objective evidences for an Aryan migration. The ethnic structure in Sri Lanka is quite South Indian with close affinities to Tamilnadu and Kerala. Sinhala and Tamil cultures derived from a common stem. Hence, the definition of ethnic differences seriously needs a fresh interpretation in the Sri Lankan context.

First Settlements in Jaffna – the Megalithic Culture c.500-100 BC.

Archaeological evidences reveal that the first people of Jaffna belonged to the megalithic culture, which is undoubtedly a South Indian phenomenon of Iron Age. Emerging in around 500 BC, the first settlers had a multifaceted subsistence of incipient farming, lagoon exploitation and cattle herding. They communicated in a language that can be termed proto-dravidian, were non-Buddhists practicing a folk religion similar to that of the Cankam Tamil country and on the whole, were of a common stock of the protohistoric South India. Tamil and Pali literatures of the early centuries of the Christian era mention them as Naakas and their land as Naaka Naatu or Naaga deepa.

Trans-oceanic Trade, Urbanization and the Resultant Emergence of a Principality in Jaffna: c. 100BC – c. AD 500.

The trans-oceanic trade that developed around the beginning of the Christian era had an important impact on Jaffna. Kantarootai in Jaffna was urbanized from the megalithic basis, parallel to Anuradhapura and Mahaagama in the southern Sri Lanka; and parallel to Korkai, Kaaverippattinam, Arikamedu and other Cankam cities in the ancient Tamil country. Jaffna emerged as a principality with Kantarootai as its central place. This phenomenon survived to c. 5th century AD till the decline of the Roman trade.

An aspect of this phase was the overlapping of Buddhism with the megalithic beliefs. Further discussion on the Buddhist monuments in Jaffna is necessary, as they are often misinterpreted and misused by the Buddhist chauvinists in Sri Lanka and much dreaded by and antagonistic to the common man in Jaffna. During the early centuries of the Christian era, Buddhism was fairly a popular ideology in Tamil South India too. Manimekalai, a post-Cankam Tamil Buddhist work mentions Jaffna as a Buddhist sacred place – Mani-naaka-tivu or Mani-pallavam – testifying the popularity of Buddhism in Jaffna.

These Buddhist remains of Jaffna are unique in their concept and execution. They are highly localized and constructed entirely with the locally available coral and limestone. At Kantarootai they appear in clusters at a particular spot. They seem to be burial monuments of monks, a Buddhicised version of megalithism. Such a concept in architecture and its execution in coral and limestone, significantly differentiates the Jaffna monuments from those in the rest of the Island. Hence, we prefer to call this architectural expression as Jaffna Buddhism. The monuments explain how at that time the socio-economic and cultural conditions in Jaffna were able to adapt the Buddhist faith and were able to articulate it in their own way. Buddhism was an integral part of the cultural heritage of Jaffna.

The Sinhala-Buddhist Identity in the perspectives of South Indian Regional Developments: 6th-10th century AD

The latter half of the first millennium AD witnessed the emergence of regional dynasties and regional cultural variations attaining definable forms in South India and Sri Lanka. Concurrent to the development of Kannada, Telugu and Tamil dynasties and cultures, the Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil patterns developed in Sri Lanka. This was the time when Sinhala became an identifiable language; Buddhism was intertwined with statecraft; and the tank-irrigated agriculture attained its full development. In contrast, the Tamil country in India was facing a Brahmanic revival, Bhakthi movement and the extinction of Jainism and Buddhism. Also, the growing powers like the Pallavas and the Pandiyas often intervened in the Sri Lankan politics. Such a background was the underlying current to the formation of Sinhala-Buddhist identity and to its antagonism and resistance to the Tamil culture. The Pali chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa were an outcome of such tendencies.

Ironically, in this age of regional developments and identities, Jaffna played a very insignificant role. This was due to the fact that the Roman trade which elevated Jaffna to a principality declined around 6th century AD, and that, hydraulic developments in the more hospitable regions in the dry zone Sri Lanka and in South India made Jaffna a poor competitor. The Tamil-Saivite evidences of this period mainly come from Maantai (Mannar district) and from Trincomalee. Jaffna was alternately absorbed into the centripetal forces that were working in the dry zone Sri Lanka and in South India.

South Indian and Sri Lankan Polity, the Chola Empire and the Emergence of the Kingdom of Jaffna; 10th-13th Century AD

The rulers of the ancient Tamil country often fought with the rulers of Sri Lanka in a similar way they fought among themselves. On many occasions, adventurous South Indian chieftains and princes conquered Sri Lanka, but ruled as Sri Lankan Kings. This pattern continued to late medieval times till the advent of the British. The last King of Kandy was neither Tamil nor Sinhalese but of Telugu origin – a survivor of the legacy of the Vijayanagar empire. Apart from these dynastic conflicts, the Chola empire was the most influential factor in formulating the Tamil homeland. By the beginning of this millennium, from a powerful basis of hydraulic developments, the Chola empire emerged in South India. Trade aspirations, particularly gaining control over the trans-oceanic Arab-Chinese trade inevitably activated the maritime expeditions of the empire. Sri Lanka faced its first colonial experience under the Cholas. The dryzone of Sri Lanka and its hydraulic pattern declined. The capital Anuradhapura was abandoned. Mass migrations took place which considerably changed the demography of the North and the East of the Island. In Jaffna, Kantarootai was replaced by Nallur. As a sequence of these developments, the kingdom of Jaffna emerged in the latter half of the 13th century AD when both the Sinhalese and South Indian hegemony declined. In short, a Tamil strain in Jaffna which was far anterior going back to protohistoric times was given a fresh impetus by the Chola empire in carving out a homeland of specific dimensions for the Tamils in the north and the east.

The Kingdom of Jaffna – Direct Predecessor to the Concept of Tamil Homeland

The kingdom of Jaffna is the direct predecessor to the present day concept of Tamil homeland. The kingdom was Tamil-Saivite and its demographical extensions were well illustrated in the Jaffna-centric historiographical literatures which arose in these times. The demography according to these literatures cover a territory from Kutiraimalai in the west coast (Puttalam district) to Verukal in the eastern coast (eastern province) encompassing more or less the present northern and eastern provinces. The kingdom was dominated by clans and feudal chieftains who had migrated from the various parts of South India, especially from Tamilnadu. On many occasions, new settlements were created by them. The kingdom was partially agrarian and partially mercantile. A kingdom exclusively for the Tamil homeland became thus possible only when there were no big powers in southern Sri Lanka and in the Tamil South India. The political reality when the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka was that there were three kingdoms i.e., the Kingdom of Kotte, Kandy and Jaffna.

Tamil Settlements in the Vanni Districts, Eastern Province and in the Northwest: 10th-16th century AD

The Chola empire and the subsequent developments had a great impact on the demography of Vanni, East and Northwest. Especially the East was in the limelight under the Cholas, probably due to their activities in the Bay of Bengal. Tamil inscriptions of this and subsequent periods are found concentrated in the East upto Tirukkoyil in the down south. Mass migrations of clans were a common phenomenon in the Vijayanagar South India, and their impact was felt in Sri Lanka too. Vanni, East and the Northwest have their own literary records narrating the settlements that arose in this period. The settlers ranged from agriculturists to traders, artisans, mercenaries and fisher folk. The indirect impact of the Vijayanagar empire prevented the political advent of Islam. But, since the early centuries of this millennium, Muslim settlements came up in the coastal areas known for maritime trade contacts. In the Tamil homeland now they are a considerable population in Mannar, Mattakkalappu, Jaffna city and Puttalam in the Northwest (which was part of the Tamil homeland till recent decades). The language of the Muslims in Sri Lanka whether in the Tamil homeland or in the rest of Sri Lanka is Tamil. They either migrated from the Coromandel coast and the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mannar, Malabar etc., or were natives converted to Islam.

The Portuguese and Dutch Periods – Jaffna centric Socioeconomic Developments: 16th-18th century AD

The Portuguese and Dutch maintained the kingdom of Jaffna as a separate unit. Jaffna witnessed considerable economic growth under the Dutch due to certain specialized industries and trade. This paved a way to the Jaffna-centric social and cultural developments in subsequent times. Towards the end of the Dutch rule, religious and linguistic revival took place which created a place for Jaffna not only to lead the Tamil homeland but also to be in a position ahead of the then Tamil South India in certain spheres of cultural achievements.

The Decline of Economic Independence

The late British period witnessed a gradual decline of economic independence of the Tamil homeland, especially Jaffna. The economy became more and more dependent on the plantations and on the Colombo-centric economic developments that took place in the Southern Sri Lanka. Traditional subsistence, trading ports and trade routes declined. Missionary and native education brought in white collar jobs. The traditional trade which was cut off from its South Indian contact turned towards the Sinhalese areas in the south creating subsistence competitions. The image of the Tamils as exploiters and the resultant ethnic conflict arose in the early decades of this century with the emergence of the powerful force of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

The Personality of the Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka

The Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka is characterized by a contiguous territory of a specific environment. It has a demography of a homogenous linguistic people who have specific subsistence patterns and who are conscious of their ethnic identity formulated over several centuries. The social formation of this territory has its own dimensions distinct from that of Tamilnadu and southern Sri Lanka. Though they call themselves as Tamils, they shouldn’t be identified with the people of Tamilnadu. Their social and cultural formations should be viewed only as a parallel development to that of Tamil South India.

Tamil Homeland – Its Place in the South Asian Pattern

If one goes for a South Asian framework, the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka may be looked upon as a regional variation. But, the prevailing political and economic conditions have made it an exerting question of Tamil nationalism, demanding a separate nation. Struggling and achieving a separate political identity; remaining as a regional variation within Sri Lanka; militarily or otherwise establishing the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism; affiliating with India; these are some of the current options envisaged officially or unofficially in the power circles and among the common people.

It is a historical fact that the Tamil social formation in Sri Lanka over several centuries played a buffer between the Sinhalese and South Indian social formations. History also points out that it was the subsistence pattern that had determined the place, status and geo-political affinities of this social formation. The present crisis is essentially one of devising socio-political means which will ensure a subsistence pattern for these people in their own land. A separate nation, autonomous State, unitary system and affiliation with India are mere words in the absence of the incorporation of this fundamental factor.

Select Reading

Arasaratnam, S: A historical foundation of the economy of the Tamils of North Ceylon. Chelvanayakam Memorial Lecture 1982, Saturday Review, Jaffna, serialized in eight issues from 17.4.1982.

Deraniyagala, S.U: Prehistoric research in Sri Lanka 1885-1980. P.E.P. Deraniyagala Commemoration Volume, 1980, pp. 152-207; Sri Lanka 28,000 BC. Ancient Ceylon, No.5, 1984.

Indrapala, K: Chapter II – History, Jaffna, ed. Indrapala, K., Department of Information, Colombo, 1983, pp. 11-21.

Navaratnam, C.S: Tamils and Ceylon, Jaffna, 1958: Vanni and the Vanniyars, Jaffna, 1960.

Pathmanathan, S: The Kingdom of Jaffna, Colombo, 1978.

Peiris, Paul E: Nagadipa and Buddhist remains in Jaffna. JRAS (CB), 1922, pp. 11-30; part II. JRAS (CB), 1925, pp. 40-67.

Ragupathy, P: Early Settlements in Jaffna: An Archaeological Survey, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Jaffna, 1983.

Rasanayakam, S: Ancient Jaffna, 1926.

Sitrampalam, S.K: The Megalithic Culture in Sri Lanka, Ph.D. Thesis, Deccan College, University of Poona, 1980.