Tamils of Sri Lanka: the historical roots of Tamil identity

By: Professor K. S. Sitrampalam

The Northeastern Herald serialises this week the third excerpt of ‘Tamils of Sri Lanka: The historical roots of Tamil identity,’ by Professor S. K. Sitrampalam, professor of history and dean, faculty of graduate studies, University of Jaffna.

In the previous excerpts Sitrampalam argued that the early peopling of Sri Lanka were by two groups: one Austric-speakers, who are referred to as the Yakshas in the Pali chronicles and who are the ancestors of modern-day Veddhas, while the other strand is that of the Dravidian-language speakers who created the Megalithic civilization in southern India. Sri Lanka was the southern-most boundary of the spread of these people whose traces are found from around 900 B.C. on the Island. While this refutes the Vijaya myth of the north Indian origin of the Sinhalese, he went on to say that unlike in the Dipawansa (4thcentury A.D.), which does not comment on Tamil rule in Sri Lanka unfavourably, the Mahawansa (6thcentury A.D.) makes anti-Buddhist references about Tamil rulers, despite instances of their patronising Buddhism or ruling over their subjects righteously.

Interpretations in early epigraphic records were erroneously interpreted as evidence of early Aryan writing, but in fact it is Tamil-Brahmi, a script, which is the mother of both proto-Sinhala (Elu) and early Tamil. But with north Indian Brahmi (Prakriti) accompanying the introduction of Buddhism to the Island, Tamil-Brahmi was gradually assimilated.

The script and other evidence show that Sri Lanka was not under continuous centralised rule from Anurdhapura as postulated by the Pali chronicles, but that Anurdhapura had to contend with 269 chieftaincies all over the Island, many of which were Tamil. Though the word Sinhala / Simhala is used in the Pali chronicles as if it had always referred to a monolithic group of people, the word became current only after the 4thcentury A.D. and that too first in reference to the Island and only later to the people.


In the light of the above discussion it is now evident that Tamil as a distinct linguistic group had a long history on the Island as confirmed by linguistic, literary and epigraphic sources. Pali chronicles do make mention of Tamil kings of the Island and according to the Mahavamsa, Duttha gamani is said to have fought with 32 Tamil kings in his bid to unite the country. The perusal of the Brahmi inscriptions do further confirm the existence of local chiefs (Parumakans) who later became kings, as well as local kings such as Vēļ, Āy. Some of them because of north Indian cultural penetration adopted titles such as Gamani, raja.

The recent study of Pushparatnam62 has brought to light several specimens of coins dating back to pre-Christian era. These coins have been discovered at Paļļikkuda, Maņņittalai, Virap~ņdyan munai and Kantarodai. These have hut or temple and the Srivatsa symbols. They are different from those issued by the Pandyas on the mainland. He concludes that these are the issues of the local kings. Some of the square coins have bull symbols and these have been discovered at Kantarodai, M~tōţţam, Vallipuram, Anuradhapura, Pãnakari and Akurugoda in the south.63 Here one could see a bull in both standing and reclining posture on a pedestal. A coin with a Brahmi legend ‘Siva’ with Nandipada symbol also has been discovered at Kantarodai.64 Even Lakshmi plaques discovered in thousands have been assigned to Tamil rulers of Anuradhapura by Parker in the last century.65 A typical coin with a legend ‘Nākabhmi’ on the obverse and ‘Polam’ in the reverse assignable to 3rd century A.D. discovered at Uduthurai in northern Sri Lanka has been taken as an evidence for the rule of Naga kings in the north.66 At this juncture it may be interesting to note that the Brahmi inscriptions found in Periyapuliyankulam in the Vavuniya district do indicate the rule of Naga chiefs as in other parts of the country.67 Moreover, both literary and archaeological data further confirm the Naga hegemony over the northern Sri Lanka.68

Recently Bopearachchi69 in the course of his archaeological work has discovered coins dateable to the 2nd century B.C. in Akurugoda, in southern Sri Lanka, written in Brahmi. These have been read as Utiran, Tasapijan, Kapati Kajapan, Mahācāttan, Malakatisaha, Cudaņakasa, Cuda-Samaņaka, Barata - Tisaha, Guttaha, Caţanākarācan. 70 Although one cannot be sure that all these are issues of local Tamil chiefs, leaving aside a few, it may be conjectured from the statement of the Mahavamsa that Dutthagamani of Rohana fought the 32 Tamil kings, these might have been issues of the local Tamil kings. One of the issues has legend ‘majima,’ which is a Prakritisation of Tamil ‘minavan.’ 71 Interestingly enough, the symbol of the fish is also found in the Brahmi inscriptions of Rohana, especially in the inscriptions of Ten brother kings. 72 The legend ‘Majhi-ma-raja’ also occurs in the Henanagala inscription in the Batticaloa district.73

The above survey indicates that the Tamils as a distinct linguistic group have maintained their identity from the early centuries of the Christian era. There were widespread Tamil settlements. They enjoyed political authority both in the Anuradhapura kingdom and in other regions. Besides this they played a significant role in the trade between Thamilakam and Sri Lanka. Although the sea traffic between the two regions led to the penetration of cultural influences from Thamilakam, in course of time Sri Lankan Tamils developed their distinct social and cultural institutions. The data of this period provides evidence for Tamils professing and patronising Buddhism, although the larger portion of the population were Hindus. The Hindu affiliation of the Tamils is corroborated by the Pali chronicles and Brahmi inscriptions.74 There was a close contact between the Buddhist centres of Thamilakam and Sri Lanka. In fact heretical schools of Buddhism in Sri Lanka derived their strength and inspiration from the Mahayanist centres of Thamilakam. Mercenary troops brought from Thamilkam probably continued here.


The dynastic instability of the Anuradhapura kingdom paved the way for more and more intervention of ruling dynasties of Thamilakam unlike in the earlier period. This has been aptly summed up by K.M.De.Silva75 as follows: “With the rise of three Hindu powers in South India - the Pandyas, Pallavas and Cōlas - in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., ethnic and religious antagonisms bedevilled relations between them and the Sinhalese kingdom. These Dravidian states were militantly Hindu in religious outlook and quite intent on eliminating Buddhist influence in south India. In time south Indian Buddhism was all but wiped out by this aggressive Hinduism, and as a result one supremely important ‘religio-cultural link between south India and the Sinhalese kingdom was severed. Besides, the antipathy of these south Indian states to Sri Lanka, normally whetted by the prospect of loot, was now for the first time sharpened by religious zeal and ethnic pride. One important consequence flowed from this: the Tamils in Sri Lanka became increasingly conscious of their ethnic identity, which they sought to assert in terms of culture and religion, Dravidian/Tamil and Hindu. Thus the Tamil settlements in the Island became sources of support for south Indian invaders, the mercenaries a veritable fifth column: Sri Lanka from a multiethnic polity, became a plural society in which two distinct groups, lived in a state of sporadic tension.”

During the 7thcentury, rival parties in the succession disputes and civil wars resorted to raising mercenary forces from India. Mercenaries who came in the 7thcentury were exclusively Tamils but towards the latter part of the 10thcentury they included a substantial number of Canarese and Keralas. Tamil and other Dravidian mercenaries who were brought to the Island in considerable numbers from time to time and settled on the Island and became a factor in politics and society. Peace and stability in the kingdom depended to a certain extent on their loyalty and cooperation. During the 7thcentury, the Culavamsa gives five instances when Tamil troops were brought over to participate in power struggles of local princes.76 Although the backing of Indian rulers is not recorded except in the case of Manavamma (684 - 718 AD), who received troops form the Pallava king Narasimha varman, it is very likely that such support was forthcoming. Some Tamil generals like Potthakuttha, Potthasala and Mah~kanda were given high offices by the Sinhalese kings. Potth~kuttha even acted as kingmaker for a brief period.77 Although Tamils had became militarily distinctively important in the country, they seem to have fallen in line with cultural traditions of the Anuradhapura kingdom. These generals are credited with having made extensive donations to Buddhist temples. 78

The 8thcentury, which saw dynastic stability in the country, appears to have been relatively free of Indian troop movements. With the 9thcentury however, Sinhalese rulers were called upon to face an entirely new situation - i.e. an open attempt to bring Sri Lanka under the political hegemony of south India. The first to try this were the Pandyas whose invasion caused great devastation to the country.79 Culavamsa describes the invaders as ‘plundering devils.’ They were joined by some Tamils who were resident in the country. A counter-invasion in support of a Pandya prince by Sena II was successful and he was able to place his nominee on the Pandyan throne. Pandyans were now called upon to meet the threat of the Colas and Sri Lanka began a policy of active collaboration with Pandyas against the Colas. Invasions and counter-invasions followed throughout the 10thcentury. At the end of it Sri Lanka became a province of the Cola Empire.

However events of the 9thand 10thcenturies left a deep mark on both the social and political fabric of the country. The Culavamsa80 too, has vague reference to ‘the many Damilas who dwelt (scattered) here and there’ in the middle of the 9thcentury. The movements of troops between Sri Lanka and south India led to an increase in the number of Tamils resident in Anuradhpura and its environs. In the reign of Sena II we hear of Deme!a adhikāri named Mahasattana for the first time. 81 References to dues from Tamil allot tees (Deme! Ku!i) for the first time in the records of the 10thcentury may mean that by this time Tamil settlers on the Island were becoming numerous so as to necessitate the levy of a separate impost from them. 82 In the 10thcentury, for the first time, there are references in the Sinhalese immunity grants to Tamil allotments (Deme! kaballa) land enjoyed by the Tamils (deme!at valademin) and village land belonging to Tamils (Deme! gam bim) which make it clear that these were areas set aside for this group of people, and it is likely that special regulations were operative in them. 83

Moreover, Tamil loan words mainly relating to administrative ranks and military service which occur often in the texts of Sinhalese inscriptions, testify to a presence of a considerable number of Tamils living on the Island during this period. 84 They were concentrated in important administrative centres, market towns, harbours and other strategic centres. Most Tamils in the Anuradhapura kingdom were Hindus while others were Buddhists. Religious institutions of the Tamils were established and supported chiefly by the mercantile communities. Apart from two principal shrines at Māntai and Trincomalee, there were some minor shrines at Anuradhapura and other localities.

Some Saivite ruins, aptly termed the Tamil ruins, have been unearthed in a section of the northern quarter of Anuradhapura.85 These ruins consist of Saiva temples, and residences for priests, with some lesser buildings scattered here and there. Some of these are Sivalinga temples while some others are dedicated to Kali, the mother goddess. Several stone lingas too have been unearthed in different places in this sector. Judging on the basis of the style, these temples are dateable to either 9thor 10thcenturies. This is further confirmed by Tamil inscriptions discovered among these ruins which are also dateable to the same period.86 While two of these refer to the donation to these temples, the third inscription records a building of a Buddhist temple known as Makkōthaippa!!i by the Nānku Nāţţu - Tamilar. 87

At this juncture, it is important to note that the Mahavamsa written during this period (6thCentury A.D.) reflects the Sinhala Buddhist identity. The Mahavamsa’s 6thand 7thchapters present a myth, which forms a central element in Sinhala ideology. In other words, the Vijayan myth represents the political ideology of the state.88 Especially after 7thcentury prerequisite conditions matured making it possible to link Sinhala identity with Buddhism and to present Tamils as opponents of Buddhism. Myths have been created to explain the term Sihala/Simhala, which originally denoted the Island and thereby an ethnic identity of the Sinhalese was linked with this form. Kings of Anuradhapura became kinsmen of Buddha and the Island became dhammadipa where only a true faith of Theravada Buddhism could flourish.

Concepts that only Bodhi sattvas (future Buddhas) could become kings of the Island gained currency in political terminology. This process of Sinhalistion has been brought out well by Conningham89 who excavated Anuradhapura. He observed that: “By progressive Sinhalisation they resisted the attempts by the South Indian states to assimilate the Island. In such circumstances the Indo-European-Buddhist nature of the Island may have been stressed by kings and Buddhist communities in order to preserve sovereignty. This emphasis would have resulted in the gradual spread of a monolingual in place of bilingual one. Certainly geneticists have suggested that the Sinhalese are more closely related to South Indian populations than to North Indian groups.”

It is very likely that besides the Tamils in the Rajaratta kingdom who gradually lost their identity as evident from Tamil inscriptions and other Hindu remains in the core of the Sinhalese kingdom, the rest of them concentrated in present north-eastern provinces, which in course of time became their traditional homeland.

P.A.T.Gunasinghe90 made the following observations about this trend: “From the 7thcentury onwards, there gradually developed a situation in the Uttaradesa (Northern Sri Lanka) which was to prove of some importance in the future for the gradual Tamilisation of the region. The Culavamsa records that when Sirinaga came with Tamil troops to attack Silamēghavaņņa, he first occupied he Uttaradesa, where he was attacked and defeated. Mānavamma spent the early years of his life in hiding (linavuttika) from his rivals, living in the Uttarddesa, and when he invaded the country, from south India, he first attacked the Uttarddesa.

In the 9thcentury, when the Pandyan king Sri Mara Sri Vallabha attacked Sri Lanka, he, as shown earlier, first attacked the Uttarddesa. It would seem, therefore, that by the 7thcentury,, the Uttaradesa was less under the control of the king at Anuradhapura, and had become a place of refuge for rebels. Invaders such as Mānavamma and Sri M~ra probably attacked the Uttaradesa first because it was easier to subjugate the northern sector rather than the better defended western sector, i.e. the route from Mannar to Anuradhapura. The comparatively looser control of the king at Aunradhapura over the Uttaradesa is confirmed by the Culavamsa, which says that the chiefs of the Uttaradesa rebelled twice during the reign of Mahinda II (777-797 A.D).

The legends of Ukkiracinkan Maruthapuravalli and Yalppadi of northern Sri Lanka, and Ādakasavunthari - Kulakkōddan of Eastern Sri Lanka have a gathered a kernel of history of this process. Nevertheless, unlike in Sinhalese history, whatever the literary sources available for the history of the Tamils are of medieval times. However, the recent archaeological researches in the north show that early state formation from chieftaincies to kingdom followed the similar pattern of the south, as evident from inscriptions91 and coins92 discovered here. Although Pali chronicles would maintain that north and the eastern region of Sri Lanka formed part of Rajarata and Rohana kingdoms respectively, excepting for occasional references, we don’t have substantial evidence for these regions forming part of the centralised administration of the Anuradhapura kingdom. The difficulties of communication and the absence of a strong bureaucracy were the factors, which were detrimental for a centralized state.

As in the case of rival claimants of the Sinhalese rulers seeking help from Thamilakam to establish rule in the Anuradhapura kingdom, in northern Sri Lanka too, a similar phenomenon is recorded in Yālppānavaipavamālai.93 For, it says that Ukkiracinkan after having lost his kingdom went to the north (Thamilakam) and brought an army and ruled the northern Sri Lanka from Katiramalai in the 8thcentury A.D. (795 A.D.) Later his capital was transferred to Cenkatakanagar, which is most probably Cingainagar. The rise of Pandyas under Sri Mara Sri Vallaba paved the way for the Pandyan invasion in the 9thcentury A.D. That it reached Anuradhapura through the north, instead of going through Mahatittha, as usual in the case of invasions from Thamilakam, itself shows that Tamils in the north would have played a key role in this invasion as well. Inscriptional evidence is also available for the Cola invasion and their activities in the north in the 10thcentury A.D.94 Recent explorations in northern Sri Lanka have brought to light various types of coins assignable to a date between 6thand 10thcenturies A.D., presumably issued by the political authority of the northern region. 95 They are either square or round and could be grouped under three headings: (a) obverse fish between two lamps; reverse, elephant (b) obverse bull between two lamps; reverse, elephant (c) obverse bull or elephant; reverse horse a fish.

The Cola victory during the time of Parantaka is also attested by their issue of Uraka coins and Ilakkasu. 96

Bibliography (this excerpt only)

62. Pushparatnam.P.2002, Ancient Coins of Sri Lankan Tamil Rulers. (Puttūr) Sri Lanka, pp.73-81.

63. Ibid.pp.76-81.

64. Ibid.p.60.

65. Parker,H.1981, Ancient Ceylon, Asian Educational Services, (New Delhi). (Reprint). p.94.

66. Pushparatnam.P., 2003. Naka Dynasty as Gleaned from Archaeological Evidences in Sri Lanka, Proceedings of the Jaffna Science Association, Tenth Annual Sessions held on April 3-5, 2003, University of Jaffna, Thirunelvely, pp. 107-145, (p.117)

67. Paranavitana,S., 1970. Op.cit, In.no.338.

68. Sitrampalam,S.K.1993, Jālppānam Tonmai Varalāru, Thirunelvely, pp.1-168.

69. Bopearachchi Osmand and Wickremesinghe Rajah. 1999. Op.cit.pp.56-59.

70. Pushparatnam,P.2002, Op.cit, pp.33-69.

71. Ibid.p.54.

72. Paranavitana.S. 1970, Op.cit, pp.42-50.

73. Ibid. no.406.

74. Sitrampalam,S.K. 1990, The Brahmi Inscriptions as a source for the study of Puranic Hinduism in Ancient Sri Lanka, Ancient Ceylon, No.7. pp.85-109.

75. Silva,K.M.De, 1981, A History of Sri Lanka, (Oxford University Press), pp.20-21.

76. Culavamsa, Op.cit XLIV, vv.70-73, V.94, V.125, V.152, XLV.vv.18-19, XLVI 33-39. XLVII, vv.33-36, 46-57.

77. Ibid.XLV. v.19, XLVI, 19-24.

78. Ibid. XLVI. v.v.19-25.

79. Ibid., Ch.L. v.v.12-36.

80. Ibid. Ch.L. v.15.

81. Paranavitana, S.Op.cit.p.372.

82. Indrapala,K.1969, Early Tamil Settlements in Ceylon, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol.XIII. p.55.

83. Ibid., p.57.

84. Vithiananthan,S., 1980. Tamil Influnce on Sinhalese Culture Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, January 1974, Vol.2 (ed).pp.194-199. Vithiananthan,S. (Chunnakam).

85. Bell.H.C.P. 1892. Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, Annual Report (Colombo), p.5; Bell H.C.P.1893 Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, Annual Report (Colombo), p.05.

86. Indrapala.K., Two Inscriptions from the Hindu Ruins’, Anuradhapura Epigraphia Tamilica. pp.1-5.

87. Indrapala.K., 1968, Anurātapurattilu!!a Nānku Naţţar Kalveţţu, Cintanai, I, No.4, Jan, 1968, pp.31-35.

88. Gunawardana,R.A.L.H. 1979, The people of the lion, The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography, The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol.V, Nos. 1 & 2 , p.14.

89. Coningham,R.A.E., Allchin,F.R, Batt.C.M. and Lucy.D., 1996 ‘Passage to India - Anuradhapura and the Early use of the Brahmi script’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol.6, No.1 April 1996, p.94.

90. Gunasinghe,P.A.T. (N.d) The Tamils of Sri Lanka - Their History and Role (Colombo), pp.21-22.

91. Sitrampalam,S.K. 1993 Op.cit, pp.1-265.

92. Pushparatnam.P. Op..cit. 2002.

93. Yalppānavaipavamālai, 1953 (ed) Sabanathan.kula., (Colombo), p.13.

94. Paranavitana,S., 1959. Op.cit, pp.344-351.

95. Pushparatnam,P. 2002, Op.cit. pp.96-99.

96. Ibid., pp.99-106.

(To be continued)

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