Sri Lanka:The Untold Story, Chapter 1

[This history series by K T Rajasingham is no longer available on the Asia Times website, so the links provided at are no longer active.  As time permits, we will be re-posting this series, along with that by T. Sabaratnam, which has some chapters missing.  Sachi Sri Kantha’s biographical series is available at — Editor]

Sri Lanka: The untold story
Chapter 1: The first teardrops 

By K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, 2001

Sri Lanka was once called the Island Paradise. But in modern times, for the past nearly 30 years it has been plagued by bloody ethnic conflict that has claimed thousands of lives, despite continued peace efforts.

The conflict has reached a stage where ethnocentricity and religious chauvinism, two disturbing elements, are poised to take center stage in the Sri Lankan political arena.

In fact, though, racism in Sri Lanka traces its roots to the days of Mahanama, the Buddhist prelate who compiled the Mahavamsa, the Buddhist chronicle dealing with the lineage of the Lord Buddha and the Sinhalese kings of Ceylon. The racial propagation of ethnocentricity and Buddhist chauvinism is based on myths, hearsay and legends, such as:

  • The vocal claim of being the descendants of the superior Aryan race against that of the Tamils’ claims of being Dravidians;
  • The Sinhala race is said to have originated after the landing of the exiled prince Vijaya and his 700 followers;
  • The idea incorporated in the Buddhist chronicles of the imaginary visits of Lord Buddha and that the Lord Buddha blessed the land in his earlier incarnations;
  • The imaginary notion of Sinhalese being the “Sons of the Soil” and that other ethnic groups were allowed to live on a “temporary basis” – a concession to the non-Sinhalese and to the non-Buddhists, and;
  • Racism in Sri Lanka increased when the Sinhalese found themselves in the majority in the country.Despite this, Tamils have co-existed with the majority Sinhalese for the past 53 years (up to 2001), since independence from the British colonial masters on February 4, 1948.Birth of a nations
    Sri Lanka, or “Ilankai”, in Tamil, is located in the Indian Ocean and is inhabited by Sinhalese and Tamils who have distinct religions, language, culture and ethnic characteristics with recognized linguistic territories demarcated by boundaries since the days of antiquity.

    The ancient Hindu epic Iramayana portrays Ceylon as a huge continent, a tradition not unsupported by science. The geology and fauna of the island point clearly to a time when the landmass was part of an Oriental continent that stretched in an unbroken land piece from Madagascar to the Malayan Archipelago and northward to the present valley of the Ganges.

    The valley was then undersea, spreading westward across Persia (Iran), Arabia and Sahara al Kobra (in Arabic, Sahara is the word used to denote any desert and “Sahara al Kobra” means the big desert or the grand desert of Africa), and forming the southern limit of the Palae-Arctic continent, which embraced Europe, North Africa and North Asia.

    In the course of ages, the greater part of the Oriental continent became submerged by sea, leaving Ceylon just a fragment in the center, with on one side the Maldives, the Laccadives, the Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar, all of them separated from one another by hundreds of miles of sea, and on the other side the Malay islands; when the Ganges valley was carved, making north and south India one stretch of land. In the years to come, Ceylon itself was separated from South India by a narrow strip of sea.

    The island in the shape of a tear drop, separated from southern India by a narrow strip of shallow sea, the Palk Strait, 30 miles away.

    The name of the country evolved into “Sri” + Lanka, with the Sanskrit honorific “Sri” denoting the diffusion of radiance, beauty and grace. The name Lanka as written in the Sanskrit version of the Iramayana came into existence as the kingdom of the Asura (in Tamil this denotes a teetotaler and a vegetarian). The kingdom of King Iravana, who was a Tamil, was known as “Ilankai” (Lanka is the Sanskrit version). Ilankai means radiates and in Tamil there is no need to adopt an honorific because the name itself depicts the holiness of the land. Up to May 22, 1972, the country was known as Ceylon, although during the prehistoric period it was called “Elam”, (the eternal country), Ilam (Ilam is the Tamil word for gold) Eezham, Eylom and presently Eelam. The pronunciation depends on the proclivity of one’s tongue.

    Kautliya’s Arthasastra called the country “Parasamudra” (the land beyond the ocean), while others came up with names such as “Palaesimoundoun” (Palaiya+Sila+Mandalam: Palaiya – old; Sila – virtuous; Mandalam – region or country, therefore the old virtuous country), “Simoundou” (Sila+Mandalam – the virtuous country).

    Subsequently, the Greek geographer Eratosthenes, in his map of the world (200 BC) called the country “the southern limit of the known world” by the Greek word “Taprobane”. Sri Lankan historians subsequently called the country by the proper name Taprobane, whereas to Greeks it is a common noun. “That this island was the celebrated Tapobrana seems manifest, for this word in Greek means ‘unknown dwelling’, or ‘hidden land’, known only for its fertility and it is not a proper name, but appropriated as [in the case of] Sicily and Cyprus, to which they also gave this name.” – The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon by Father Fernao De Queyroz, Translated by Father S G Perera.

    Again, it is believed that the name Tabrobane is the corruption of “Tamba-Panni”, a name given to Ceylon in the Sinhalese chronicles Mahawamsa and Dipawamsa. A few other historians believe that on the opposite coast of India there is a river called Tamaraparani and the Tamils may have brought the name with them to Ceylon.

    Arabs called the country “Serendib” and the Portuguese “Ceilao”, but Thais have added the honorific “Tewa” calling the island “Tewa Lanka” – divine Lanka. The Nagadwipa as mentioned in the Pali chronicles and Nagadiboi of Ptolemy’s map of 150 AD was the Tamil territory and it is more or less the same as the area shown in the Dutch and French maps of Ceylon.

    Compilers of Ceylon chronicles have purposely avoided the historical geography of the country. B C Law in his On the Chronicles of Ceylon,writes, “The chronology must begin from a certain definite date, which in the case of the Ceylon chronicles is the year of Buddha’s demise, marking the starting point of the Buddha era.” Law further wrote, “A happy coincidence is imagined and availed to build a systematic chronology of the kings of Ceylon, the coincidence of the day of Buddha’s demise with that of the landing of the exiled prince Vijaya on the island of Lanka. A prediction is put into the mouth of the Buddha to raise the importance of his appearance on the island as the founder of the first Aryan race.”

    From ancient times and continuously over the past two to three millennia, the Tamils and the Sinhalese have lived and shared the country, but not the Muslims – they failed to fall within the definition of an ethnic group. Muslims in Sri Lanka speak the Tamil language, therefore they too are Tamils. (The Arabic word Muslim means one who professes the faith of Islam or who is born to a Muslim family. From this it is clear that Muslims are not an ethnic grouping but a religious grouping. Unfortunately, Muslims are introduced as a separate ethnic entity for political gains.)

    Earlier, Buddhist chroniclers failed to go beyond what had been determined during the time they were making their compilations. Dipavamsa was the oldest Buddhist chronicle written in the Pali language, said to have been compiled around the 4th Century AD. The contents are based on stories and fables narrated by people without any corroborating evidences to confirm the authenticity of the narration.

    This was followed by Mahavamsa, which was based on the Dipavamsa, written by Mahanama, a Buddhist monk in the 6th Century AD, another Pali rendition, not in the historical tradition but, “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious”, lauding the victories of the Sinhalese kings over the Tamil kings, treating the Sinhalese kings as the protectors of Buddhism and saviors of the Sinhalese, while deriding the Tamils as invaders, vandals, marauders and heathens. The Mahavamsa openly declares killing a virtue in defense of Buddhism in its description of the victory of the Sinhalese prince Dutthagamini (161-137 BC) over Ellalan (205-161 BC), the Tamil king.

    Though Dutthagamini defeated Ellalan, he failed to secure sway over the Tamils in the northern portion of the country. The country has been divided through its history of more than 2,500 years into two or more kingdoms, of which one has always been the kingdom of the Tamils. History clearly shows that only twice were the Tamils subdued, first by Parakrama Bahu I (1153-1186) and later by Sapumal Kumaran, alias Senpahap Perumal, who ascended the throne of the Tamil kingdom under the name of Bhuvaneka Bahu, an adopted son of Parakramaa Bahu VI (1411-1466). This brought the Sinhalese sway over the Tamil kingdom to approximately 22 years.

    From the very earliest period, then, records show that there has never existed a united Ceylon and that the Sinhalese and Tamils have been at odds at all times. This has generated the emotive claims of the Sinhalese and Tamils for nationhood, but there has never been a call for a composite nationhood in the country where ethnocentricity of the numerical majority prevails to override the national aspirations of the another.

    Western colonialism: Portuguese and Dutch
    The Portuguese arrival in Ceylon was an accident, a rude quirk of destiny. In 1505, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Don Lourenco de Almedia, forced by winds and waves, was tossed into Galle, the harbor located on the southern coast of the island. He learned that the island was the famous land called Ceilao, and he sailed on to Colombo, the port in the Kotte kingdom. When the Portuguese arrived in Ceylon, Vira Parakrama Bahu (1484-1509) was the king of Kotte, Senasammata Vikrama Bahu (1469-1511) was the king of the Hill country and Pararajasekeran (1469-1511) was the king of the Tamil kingdom.

    In the beginning, the Portuguese desire was for trade, chiefly in cinnamon, but it also wanted a foothold on the island as it was strategically located to control the sea routes of the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, they entered into a treaty in 1505 with Vira Parakrama Bahu under which they were assured of a supply of cinnamon and also permission to build a factory. In 1518, the treaty was renewed, which drew the Portuguese into the local political arena owing to the internal rivalries and quarrels of the Sinhalese princes. From 1551, the Portuguese assumed the role of protectors and began to direct the affairs of the kingdom of Kotte, and from 1597 to 1658 the entire maritime regions of the country came under the domination of the Portuguese, except for the Kandyan kingdom, which remained an independent entity.

    The last Tamil patriarch, who was a pretender to the throne of the Tamil kingdom, was Cankli Kumaran, who fought decisively with the Portuguese forces under the command of Filipe De Oliveriya. At Vannarponnai, Cankli Kumaran’s forces were defeated. He and his family set to sail to Tanjore, in South India, to seek assistance from King Ragunatha Nayakar.

    Unfortunately, adverse winds blew his boat towards Point Pedro, where he was accosted by the Portuguese and captured. With him were his queens, children and his retinue. Portuguese soldiers confiscated 8,000 milreis (Portuguese currency) found in the boat and ran amok with the royalty, stealing their jewelry. When Cankli Kumaran saw this ruthless behavior, he took off his own jewels and gave them to the soldiers. This episode is a sad illustration of Portuguese barbarism of the time.

    The Tamil kingdom, which extended up to the eastern province, came under Portuguese domination in 1621, and this was how the Tamils lost their sovereignty, independence and their traditional homeland.

    Nevertheless, after 1560, the Portuguese began destroying Hindu temples located in other regions. Destruction and vandalism by the Portuguese gathered momentum after the capture of the Tamil kingdom in 1621. Filipe de Oliveriya, the Portuguese governor, was acclaimed for destroying more than 500 Hindu temples, which were also the cultural treasures of the Tamils. These acts of vandalism and destruction were never censured, and they still have not, even today, 343 years later.

    In 1638, the Dutch came to Ceylon at the invitation of Rajasingha II (1635-1687), the king of the hill country called the Kingdom of Kandy, and entered into an accord with the monarch. The Dutch agreed to drive the Portuguese out of the maritime provinces of the island. They first captured Batticaloa, and in 1639 they captured the harbor city of Trincomalee. The Dutch carried on their war and utterly destroyed the power of Portuguese in Ceylon by capturing Colombo in 1656 and finally the Tamil kingdom in 1658, thus bringing the entire littoral areas of the country under their domination.

    The Portuguese, when they captured the Tamil kingdom, appointed a captain-major as the governor of Jaffna and administered it as a distinct political unit. Accordingly, for the purpose of administration, the Dutch divided the maritime regions into three “commanderies” – Colombo, Jaffna and Galle. Three different lieutenant-governors administered these regions, with the one responsible for Jaffna administering the region based on the traditional laws of the region.

    CHAPTER 2: Beginning of British rule 



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