The Untold Story of Ancient Tamils in Sri Lanka

by by Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai, Sri Lanka Guardian, March 31, 2008

Workers tend to graves in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Kopay Cemetery.

“And history may need to rewritten in the light of new evidence and argument. Much about Tamils needs to be unraveled and examined according to the author who is convinced and tries to convince that Tamils had been in the island from early years living peacefully with the Sinhalese.”

(March 31, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a slim volume, Chelvadurai Manogaran, former Professor of Geography and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, endeavours to argue that the Tamils in the northern and eastern province of Sri Lanka have a legitimate claim to the right of self determination.

Manogaran has written a book on Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka in 1987 and co-edited a book with Professor Bryan Pfaffenberger, The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity, published in 1994. He is no newcomer to handling the ethnic problem in a study and the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government’s forces, about which he has comments to offer.

See the source imageHe traces briefly the antecedents of the Sinhala – Tamil problem and enumerates some of the handicaps suffered by the Tamils in a section on the “Majoritarian System of Government and Minority Rights.” As he asserts the “Purposes of the monograph is to show that Sri Lankan Tamils have a long history of settlement, dating back to proto-historic times… He refutes the view that the Tamils were late arrivals and bases his contention on the similarity of the language and scripts used by ancient South Indian Tamils and found in Sinhala writing. He cites the example of the use of the script in the Kuchaveli rock inscription in east Sri Lanka, and demonstrates that the scripts of the Sinhalese and Dravidian languages like Telungu are alike indicating relationship.

Additionally, Manogaran advances the idea that along with Tamil immigration to the island agricultural technology was transferred from South India to Sri Lanka. His evidence, as he states, is based on epigraphic records and ancient inscription which testify to a peaceful co-existence to the Tamils with the Sinhalese. He claims that the term Sinhalese is not applicable to the early period of the island’s history and the term Sinhala is even not mentioned in ancient inscriptions. On the contrary, according to the author, inscriptions reveal clear Tamil presence in the island in ancient times.

Manogaran furthermore devotes a few pages of his concise essay to the Nagas of Sri Lanka. They are considered to be a discrete group but like the Tamil speaking Dravidians of South India had continued to worship Siva. They constructed Siva temples but were also instrumental in the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He draws his evidence from the Tamil epic Manimekalai, and the Mahavamsa when discussing the Buddha’s second visit to the island.

He concludes the final part of this account with a discussion on the contribution of the Eelam Tamils to the development of Tamil literature in the Sangam period. Manogaran states that “Tamil speaking people formed the backbone of the island’s society” until the 4th century AD, “When their identity began to be gradually submerged in Sinhalese – Buddhist society”. The author also speaks of the paucity of written history on Sri Lankan Tamils and their tradition quoting Professor K. Kanapathi Pillai.

According to Manogaran there is an unwillingness on the part of the Sinhalese scholars, especially later, to acknowledge the Tamil presence despite evidence of an early settlement of the island by Dravadian speaking people who had migrated from south India from prehistoric years. He submits that only from the fourth century AD that the chronicles began to portray the Tamils as enemies of the Sri Lanka state. It was felt that the existence of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist society began to be felt to be under the constant threat of racial and cultural assimilation from Dravadian South India, emphasis Manogaran. Hence the animosity toward Tamil Hindus, he posits.

The extended essay by Chelvadurai Manogaran is bound to excite interest as well as controversy. The author’s views will be challenged and criticized by some and there can be debate and discussion. But, as a daily newspaper quoting Amartya Sen, warned “Do not mix myth with history”, and one should be wary about accepting what is conveyed as historical facts in any controversy. Dr. Deraniyagala has correctly indicated “that the picture of our country’s early civilization is beginning to drastically change as a result of tests and excavations carried out here in recent years.”

And history may need to rewritten in the light of new evidence and argument. Much about Tamils needs to be unraveled and examined according to the author who is convinced and tries to convince that Tamils had been in the island from early years living peacefully with the Sinhalese. Animosity against them arose later, affirms Managoran who dedicates the little monograph “Toward hope for peace in Sri Lanka.”

(This is reviewed based on the “The untold story of ancient Tamils in Sri Lanka” written by Chelvadurai Manogaran, Chennai, Kumaran Publishers in 2000.)

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