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Friday, 20 July 2018
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The biggest blunder of S J V Chelvanayagam was to assume a unique Lankan Tamil heritage and make that the basis for his demand for a federal state. It had had a better appeal when introduced, in late 1940s. Chelvanayagam’s definition of a ‘Tamil’ was a speaker of the language as his/her mother tongue. Cultural distinctions between the Tamil speaking Hindus and Muslims were neglected.


Anyway, Chelvanayagam was wrong. Forget the homeland. The history of ‘Tamils’ in Lanka was shorter than he would have ever guessed. Dr. Karthigesu Indrapala, the eminent Jaffna University professor of History, in his now famous PhD thesis, provided the most stunning evidence against the homeland theory. First Tamil settlements, he said, appeared in 12-13th century, not more than three centuries prior to the advent of Europeans. The oldest ‘Tamil’ inscriptions in Lanka hardly go beyond the days of Rajaraja Chola (ruled 985 – 1014 CE) whose empire spread over entire South India and most of Lanka except Southern parts. All ‘Tamil’ monuments in Polonnaruwa too belong to this age and not indigenous. These are the facts.

Does this make sense? Why didn’t the South Indian Tamils cross the 25 km of Palk Strait to inhabit this land? (In fact, the gap was narrower then – not wider than a river, according to Megasthenes, the Greek traveler and geographer of Chandra Gupta Maurya times)

Following is a possible explanation of this paradox. This needs redefining the terms ‘Sinhalese’, ‘Tamils’ and ‘Dravidians’.

Who are the Sinhalese?

The locals, number one. They are more indigenous than Tamils, having been here isolated for a longer period, but still a mix.

Sinhalese are no more Aryan, than South Indians are. Neither are they direct descendents of the Vijaya’s Vanga (Bengali) team blended with local Yaksha tribes in the times of Pandukabhaya, as Mahanama thero, the great chronicler wanted us to believe. An incessant (’avichchinna’) Aryan Sinhalese tradition never existed. That was a myth just like the ‘pure’ and unmixed’ Sinhalese. The reality is not that black and white.

These are the facts.

1. Pre iron age indigenous communities preceded the mass migrations across the subcontinent. Balandoga man was their rep. Also called Sabaru, Nittawas or even Yakshas/Nagas, they were tribes who hardly knew the use of metals.

2. Then happened the migrations, over a period of few centuries, if not millennia. One key route was from the area of modern Afghanistan/Pakistan to South East Asia across South India including Lanka. No doubt, part of these migrants was Aryans, but not all. Migrations also happened in the reverse. South Indians as well as South East Asians entered the island from the east. The Lambakarnas, or the clan of long ears, were the most prominent. Their number might be smaller, as unlike the migrants from the west they did not enjoy the luxury of travelling over land. But this did happen.

3. Arabs and Europeans arrived later. They certainly didn’t bring women as then sea travel was a male-monopoly. So when some of them settled down here they would have taken local women. May be they impregnate some women too.

The Sinhalese were a fair blend of all above; the indigenous; South Indians; North Indians; South East Asians; Arabs and later Europeans. An achcharu. No more, no less.

Who are the Tamils?

A popular myth is ethnic Lankan Tamils are direct descendents of the Madrasis. They were not. They were descendents of the Dravidians, not just Tamils. Their ancestors were mostly from Malabar area (Chera kingdom). Some might also have come from other South Indian states and originally spoke other Dravidian languages. They were converted to ‘Tamils’ much later.

According some Sinhalese extremists, the beginning of Lankan Tamil identity coincided with the arrival of Tamil coolies to work in tobacco plantations in North and East. Strange, it may sound, but this is partially true. Tamils did exist before, but only as a diminutive minority. The exodus that made them bigger and prominent could have been the turning point. Any culture adopts advanced features from a more developed culture. Madrasi Tamils were superior to indigenous Dravidians. The local culture could not resist the Madrasi influence with newly built communication and transport channels making the two countries closer. So they ceased being Dravidians. A new Tamil race was born. That explains many things.

Who were the Dravidians?

A migrant/descendant from any the four states in South India, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andra Pradesh was a ‘Dravidian’. (The interstate boundaries could be different then.)

What was the Dravidian culture?

The intuition was to assume that similar to Tamils’ but it need not be. Tamils were predominantly Hindus, while at least part of Dravidians could have been Buddhists. Most Dravidians might have spoken non-Tamil languages. Since they have been here for long some could have spoken a dialect of early Sinhala. (Some Dravidians might certainly have joined mainstream by converting to Sinhalese, but let us ignore them here for sake of clarity.)

In fact, the term ‘Dravidians’ instead of ‘Tamils’, would have been more politically correct, though that still would not have given Chelvanayagam a fair claim for a separate state. But that could have given him a more valid claim for a rich ancient heritage – that spanned the entire island, not just North and East.

Dravidian history in Lanka is momentous though we either do not know or prefer to ignore it for political reasons. Treated as a separate community, they are either as old as or even older than the Sinhalese. Monuments at Ibbankatuwa (700-600 BC) show striking similarity to ancient burial grounds in South India. This is enough proof they lived prior to the assumed point of the advent of Vijaya – the mythical commencement of the Sinhala race.

Perhaps the biggest contribution to Lankan heritage by Dravidians happened during the 8-9 centuries CE. The Buddhist culture this period was largely Mahayana/Vajrayana. It was directly influenced by the strong Buddhist civilization in nearby Pallava kingdom – now Andra Pradesh. Enough evidence exists in South India to show the direct relationship, but most distinct are the monolithic rock statues of Buddha. All of these, from Avukana to Buduruvagala and from Thantirimale to Polonnaruwa Gala Viharaya were part of the Dravidian culture as much as that of Sinhalese. The other remaining evidence are the ruins at Velgam Vehera near Trincomalee, which C W Nicholas incorrectly called the ‘Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people’ and the set of miniature stupas at Kantharodai, a suburb of Jaffna. The Tamils were never Buddhists; but the Dravidians were. These were their shrines. In fact, almost all Buddhist ruins in North and much outside show unmistakable Dravidian features. Identical twins can be found in South India.

The bottom line is Dravidians have never been farang (foreign). They have always being a key ethnic component that made the Lankan nation. Ignoring them and branding it a pure Sinhalese Buddhist culture is not just unfair but a gross misinterpretation of the history.

By Lahiru Sandun Mihiranga,

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