The Original People of Sri Lanka

By D. P. Agasthiyan


It is the lack of an unbiased and balanced approach to the ethnic problem in the past that has created racists and chauvinists on both side of the divide and brought the country to the present despicable and deplorable state. This came about through a misguided and fanciful interpretation of the available historic data. Secondly it should be noted that the study of history must be for history and knowledge sake. History should never be didactic, nor should it be falsified and made into tools of politics. Nothing will be gained by bringing history into politics , especially, history of the hoary past where nothing definite is known. Hitler's experience bears ample testimony to this fact. Nothing will be gained politically by arguing whether the chick or the egg came first. It will also not be practical or justifiable to settle one's problems on the basis of "who came first" It will be best if our problems are settled on the basis of natural selections and from definitely known traceable periods and facts.


Primarily it has to be accepted that no in-depth - comparative and analytical - study of Sri Lankan history has yet been undertaken by anyone. Such a study will reveal the, right and whole history and also that if at all there was an original people, all traces of such people had vanished atleast about two thousand fivehundred years ago as they were absorbed by the Tamils and Sinhalese and sections of whom were reabsorbed by the two main streams, a process that is going on even today. One will also find that the history of both the Tamils and Sinhalese are thoroughly mixed up and intertwined. Hence it is felt that if the right and whole history of Sri Lanka is to be known one must adopt a very strictly unbiased and balanced approach, especially in today's atmosphere , and look for external evidence also especially when the Tamils of both India and Sri Lanka had not left much permanent records of their activities. Further most of their records were destroyed by the inundations of the distant past, As against this it should also be noted that the Pali chronicles which deal with Sri Lanka conceal - intentionally or unintentionally - as much as they reveal - a fact accepted by all right thinking historians.


The available historical data are as follows:

The antiquity of the Sinhalese is taken up first.

(1) While it is a fact that the majority of the people of Sri Lanka today are Sinhalese, yet it has to be accepted that a very large number of them are descendants of South Indian Tamils who had come to the Island throughout the ages as peaceful migrants or South Indian warriors of Sinhalese pretenders to the Islands throne-or as warriors of Pandyan and Chola invaders who settled here and were Sinhalised during course of time. This never ending process of amalgamation which is going on even today should have originated from the earliest time, well before the coming of Vijaya. This is the only way to explain the presence of Tamil or Tamil derived words even in the Pali chronicles. Most of the ancient names of rivers mentioned in the Mahavamsa are Tamil words. e.g. Kadamba Nadi, Mahakandara Nadi, Gona Nadi, Gambira Nadi etc.,


(2) Prof. K. M. de Silva in his book " History of Sri Lanka" says that the Island was first populated by Aryans from the North West and North East of India. Yet he also readily admits that " we have at present no archaeological evidence with regard to the early Indo Aryan settlers. No sites have yet yielded data which could help us identify some of the other influences which had played upon the Island in the period from 650 B.C. In particular we have no archaeological finds that could be traced back to either the West or East coasts of North India" Infact, all that we have are finds that are traceable to a civilization congruous with - that of South India. The North Indian origin of the Sinhalese is based on myths, legends and traditions that crept in recently. But yet the Sinhalese call themselves Aryans.


(3) The Sinhalese language, because it contains a large percentage of Pali and Sanskrit derived words, introduced through the influence of Pali speaking missionaries and Buddhist chronicles is claimed to have originated from Pali and Sanskrit, without considering the fact that a very large percentage ,if not a majority of words are Tamil derived. A Sinhalese scholar- believed to be- Mudaliyar Gunaratne - in one of his research articles has said that if Pali was the father of the Sinhalese language then Tamil was its mother. He has also pointed out that in grammar the Sinhalese language is closer to Tamil than any other Aryan language. Further Prof. Silva also in his "History of Sri Lanka" accepts that there was considerable Tamil influence in the vocabulary, idioms and grammatical structure of the Sinhalese language. Prof. G. C. Mendis in his book "Our Heritage" has said that if we shared the Sinhalese language of all the borrowed words we would be left with the core language, and that the closeness of this core language to a North Indian language would enable us to trace the area from which the language and immigrants came and that our knowledge of languages prevented us from coming to any conclusions. The position remains the same today too. From this statement it is obvious that no one had considered the closeness of this core language to a South Indian Dravidian language.


(4) The term Sihala is found in the Mahavamsa only in its first few opening chapters, where it is said that the followers of Vijaya were called Sihala because his father killed his father - a lion - and hence was called Sihabahu. But Sihabahu's sister and queen, who played no part in the killing of her father, the lion, was called Sihasivali. Hence it has to be concluded that Sihabahu and Sihasivali were so called because they were the children of a lion - probably a bold and strong personality who lived in the jungles as an outlaw. Thus we find that the followers of Vijay were called Sihalas not because of the leader and founder but because of his father who banished them. This being a fanciful explanation one has to look for the origin of the term elsewhere.

The Mahavamsa does not mention the term Sihala or its derivations any further. Infact though the Mahavamsa says that when Mahinda introduced Buddhism in circa 250 B.C, he preached in the language of the Island. It does not say whether the language was Sinhala or Tamil. A liberal use of the term Sihala is found only in the Culavamsa which is said to have been composed in the 12th. C. A. D. Even the term Sihaladvipa is found only in the Culavamsa. We also find that both in the Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, it is the term Lanka which is almost always used to denote this Island. There are four or five occasions where the term Tambapanni - another pre-Vijayan term and a Pali corruption of the Tamil term Tamraparni - is also used. Tamraparni is the name of a region and a river in South India almost opposite Tambapanni of Sri Lanka, a village about 20 miles north of Puttalam. Due to the fact that Pali of that time did not have alphabets like "r", "v" etc. these alphabets in the term Tamraparni were replaced by consonants "b" and "n" respectively and thus the corruption Tambapanni. Thus it becomes obvious that the term Sihala and its derivatives gained currency only after the 5th/6th C.A.D and before the 12th C.A.D. It may also be noted that the excavations at Pomparipu near Tambapanni show some resemblance of a South Indian Megalithic culture.


(5) References to the Island of even the llth/12th C.A.D. in South Indian literature - a region with which the Island has had the closest and most frequent contacts, war or peace, show that the Island had been referred to as Eelam or Lanka, though there are references to "Sinhalese Kings". Yet in a Telugu copper plate of the 5th. C.A.D. the term Sinhaladvipa had been used.


(6) The undeveloped phraseology of the Sinhala language used in the cave inscriptions of the 3rd C.B.C. show the infantile stage of the Sinhala language of the period. This was at a time when the Tamil language was well developed. The Sinhala language should have evolved through the amalgamation of the original pre-Vijayan language of the Island which is believed by some was Elu, with Tamil and the language of a few Klingas - which is once again a Sanskritised Dravidian language - and later with a voluminous vocabulary of Pali - a Sanskritised Prakrit - and Sanskrit words through the influence of Buddhist chronicles and missionaries. Indications of a well developed Sinhala language are found only after the poems of the 4th/6th. C.A.D.


(7) Regarding the term Sihala and its derivatives it will be far more convincing if we consider that the term Sihala was derived from Eelam and not the other way round as some Sinhalese literati would like to have. i.e. Eelam - Sri Eelam - Si Eelam - Sihalam - Sihala and Sinhala Ceylon of the British was derived from Sihala. i.e. Sihala - to Zeilon of the Portuguese to Ceilon/Seilon of the Dutch and to Ceylon of the British. Sri Lanka is derived from Lanka the earliest name for the Island and a pre-Vijayan term.


(8) Unfortunately records of early travellers and traders do not shed much light on the subject. Regarding the antiquity of the Tamils.


(A) Some historians like P. I. Srinivasa Iyangar M. A. of South India says with substantial data in his book " Pre-Aryan Tamil Culture " that the Tamils were in South India by atleast 5000 BC.


(B) Dr. P. E. Peris (later Knigted) in one of his research articles in the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, has said that it stands to reason that the boat people of South India, while out boating in the Palk Strait would have sooner or later discovered and populated at least the North Western coasts of the Island. This would have been circa 3000 B.C. when boating is said to have originated in South East Asia as claimed by some researchers. There is evidence of boating by the people of Mohenda Jaro which was about 2500/3000 B.C.


(C) According to the Bible, ships of Solomon and Hiram had during 1000 B.C. traded in sandal wood, gems, pea cocks tortoise shells and apes. As sandal wood was available only in South India, the ships should have come to South India. Further teak wood from the same area was found in Ur of Chaldea.


(D) Tamil words for ivory,apes,pea-cocks, and aghil were almost without any change borrowed by the Hebrew language while Tamil words for rice, ginger and cinamon also without much change have been borrowed by the Greeks.


(E) Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered 9th C.B.C. settlement sites in Anuradhapura with evidence of writing, showing evidence of a civilization congruous with that of South India. This shows that Anuradhapura was inhabited by people with connections with South India before the coming of Vijaya. Further there are a number of pre-Vijayan settlements all over the Island. All excavated such sites show evidence of a pre-Vijayan civilization congruous with that of South India.


(F) Tholkapiam, the oldest extant Tamil work has been dated by Indian researchers at 9th C.B.C.


(G) The Ramayana of the 8th/9th C.B.C. mentions the Pandiyan kingdom as a very rich kingdom.


(H) During the 5th C.B.C. Vijaya married a Pandiyan princess whose retinue consisted of a thousand families of eighteen guilds. This shows that the Pandyans of South India of the 5th C.B.C. was a well developed and established state with division of labour even before the coming of Vijaya.


(I) Mahabharata of the 5th C.B.C. mentions the Cheras and Nagas. According to South Indian Tamil literature and Sri Lankan historical sources a Naga kingdom existed atleast from the 6th C.B.C. to the 3rd C.A.D in the North.


(J) Katyayana the Indian poet and grammarian of the 4th C.B.C. mentions the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas.


(K) Onesicrates of the 4th C.B.C. mentions Taprobane, a Greek corruption of Tamraparni.


(L) Megasthenes of the 4th.C.B.C. mentions Taprobane and says that it was separated from India by a river.


(M) Asoka's inscriptions of the 3rd C.B.C. mentions Cheras, Cholas Pandyas and Tambapanni.


(N) Pliny and Periplus of the lst. C.A.D. say that the old name for the Island was Palaya Si Mondu (Old Sri Eela) Mandalam but that the ancients called it Taprobane.


(O) Some of the greatest Tamil works extant today were composed during the period 1st C.B.C to 1st C.A.D.


(P) A calm and unbiased analyses of the Vallipuram Gold Plate of the 2nd. C.A.D. will show that the North had its own king with very little contact with the Sinhalese and with its own independent sect of Buddhism without any attachment to Buddhist sects of Anuradhapura although a sovereign/vasal state arrangement could have existed.


Thus the above will show that:


(I) The Sinhalese race and language could have evolved circa 3rd C.B.C. through the interaction of Tamil Pali and sanskrit a process that is going on even today;


(II) The Tamil race and language with sea going capability, was certainly in existence before atleast l,OOO B.C.


(III) The Tamils would have settled in the Island ages before Vijaya and the Sinhalese appeared in the Island.


(IV) Nothing will be gained by bringing history into politics and politics into history. No useful purpose will be served by arguing whether the chick or the egg came first


(V) It will neither be practical nor advisable to solve our problems on the basis of "who came first" .It will be best if the problems are solved on the basis of natural selection and settlement from a definitely known date and data.

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