Emeritus Professor of History S. Pathmanathan, in an interview with Dailymirror, discusses the origins of settlements in Sri Lanka and argues for the Tamil Homeland concept from a historian’s point of view. Prof. Pathmanathan, who is also the Chancellor of Jaffna University, said both the Sinhalese and the Tamils have a common identity.
QHow do you analyse the origin of Tamil settlements in the north?
There are many unfounded impressions about the people of the country as a whole that were created during the 19th century. Europeans described the Sinhalese people as of Indo-Aryan origin on the basis of language they speak, and the Tamils as of Dravidian origin. In fact, these had cultural connotations, they were not racial terms. In contemporary times, academics do not speak about race. In Sanskrit, they could not pronounce the word ‘Tamil’. So, they referred to the Tamil people as ‘Dravida’. People of Tamil Nadu or neighbouring states never called themselves as Dravida. This is a description applied to them by those who spoke other languages outside the Tamil Nadu and particularly in Sanskrit texts
According to the Mahavamsa, there were two categories of people in the island before the advent of Buddhism-Yakkhas and Nagas. In archeological terms, they could be identified respectively with the people of the Mesolithic Culture, and the people of the Early Iron Age Culture. The Mesolithic people had lived here for 28,000 years B.C. except in the Jaffna peninsula and the islands.
That is because there is no source of perennial water supply. These Mesolithic people did not have instruments to dig wells or construct tanks of any sort. They were not food producers. Subsequently people of the Early Iron Culture came from South India around 800 B.C. They had subjugated the earlier inhabitants. The ancestors of the Singhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils are the descendants of the people of these two communities-Yakkhas and Nagas. The intermixture of these two peoples produced them. However, in the Jaffna peninsula where there were no Yakhas earlier, the people of the Early Iron Age culture were the earliest inhabitants. Over the course of time, people from the mainland could have moved in there in small numbers because of a variety of reasons. By the time, Buddhism was introduced to the island the Yakkhas and Nagas had intermingled. The evolution of a cultural identity was already in progress. The cultural difference between the two peoples was eliminated. The implication is that before the advent of Buddhism, a mode of production similar to that found among the advanced societies of India, had been established here among the elite groups.
It was at this stage, with the introduction of Buddhism and Prakrit made its way into the island. It became widespread with the spread of Buddhism. The early literature of Buddhism is entirely in Prakrit. In the meantime, the Nagas whom Prof. Senarat Paranavitana and Siran Deraniyagala have identified with the Early Iron Age people, had developed a mode of production, and incipient political units. They had developed agriculture and maritime activities. They cleared the jungles with the help of Yakkhas whom they had subjugated. For the first time, they established a sedentary community.In the Jaffna peninsula, the Nagas had established centres of production and all kinds of economic activities. They interacted with the other societies in the country. They had wide ranging commercial relations in the region and outside it during the period of the Roman Empire. The Nagas, had every where established principalities.
It is remarkable that the Mahavamsa refers to 32 Damila ’Kings’, in its account of Dutthagamini Abhaya. These were found in the eastern part of the island. During the last century no one was aware of the existence of Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in the island. The situation has changed during the last ten years. A very large number of stone inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi characters have been identified.
For the first time we found two inscriptions in the south-western part of the Batticaloa District. One is of a single word and the other is a fairly long inscription. One is Buddhist in content and the other is Jain. Both are in Tamil Brahmi characters. Prior to this, some Sinhalese epigraphists like Saddahmangala Karunaratne and Abhaya Ariyasinghe have discovered the traces of Tamil Brahmi, a kind of script used for writing the Tamil language, among the inscriptions in some parts of the island.
QHow do you support this argument with further evidence?
They did not know the existence of Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in the island. They found that there were some letters peculiar to this variety, and all the four letters of that variety were found in Prakrit inscriptions recorded in Brahmi characters of the Asokan variety. Early Brahmi inscriptions relating to Buddhism are in Prakrit. The Sinhala language developed from the Prakrit language of the earliest inscriptions recording donation to the Sangha. Up to AD 300, the language of the inscriptions was mainly Prakrit.
The period from 300 AD to700 AD, was one of transition from Prakrit to Sinhala. In the 7th century the process of transition was completed and thereafter characteristics of the Sinhala language were well-established. Since the discovery of Tamil Brahmi inscriptions in 2007 in Batticaloa, we have been able to identify a very large number of them. Initially, in the Eastern Province, we visited some sites in northwestern part of the Batticaloa District.
We discovered a very ancient well, constructed by the Nagas. It was constructed by placing burnt earthen rings one above the other. From the ground level, we were able to find 24 of such rings. Below them there was water. We could not find the depth of the well. Later, we found several such wells in different parts of the island. The wells dug by the Nagas are rather deep, but not very broad. They are about ten feet in circumference. Only one person can get into the well at a time. They had collected some broken pieces of the rim of this well and kept them at an office in Batticaloa. We came back and found the traces of a Naga bandha (The union of two snakes) that had been designed around the rim of the well. It is like two waves, one above the other. At the top portion of the wave, there is a figure of a horse. In the Mahavamsa there are references to Tamils, who were horse traders. We were able to read the inscription. It contains the names of titles of three generations of chieftains of Naga lineage. They had alternate titles. Subsequently, we found similar inscriptions in hundreds all over the Eastern province, the Vanni region and the Jaffna peninsula.
QIn a nutshell, are you trying to establish the fact that both Sinhalese and Tamils have a common ancestry?
QThen, how did Tamils got concentrated in the north and the east and the Sinhalese in other parts of the country?
This is very interesting. The Sinhalese, as I told you, developed from Parkrit. Prakrit was introduced along with Buddhism. In the Northern Province, there are only three places where you find Prakrit inscriptions. In all other places, you get hundreds of Prakrit inscriptions. These are used not by those who spoke the Prakrit language but by those who used it as a link language. In the West Indies, they spoke broken French. They were under French rule before they were occupied by the British. On that basis, can you say that it is their language? They are of African origin. Similarly, in India, it happened in that manner.
The earliest epigraphic records found in the South Indian States of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are also in Prakrit. In Sri Lanka, wherever the Nagas were concentrated in larger numbers than the Yakkhas, the Tamil language prevailed. Another additional factor is the undisrupted contact with the coast of South India from where more and more people were coming into the island. In other places, where the Yakkhas were predominantly large in numbers, the Tamil language could not survive. They retained some traces of it. They adopted Prakrit. In Sinhala, the vocabulary is Indo-Aryan. It is Dravidian in structure. There are three considerations about languages that were spoken or used in the island. Prakrit is Indo-Aryan and was introduced into the island after the introduction of Buddhism. It was initially used as a link language. In the course of time it displaced the other languages in a major part of the island. The origins of some of the place-names in both Sinhala and Tamil could be traced from the lost language
QIn the civil war that ravaged the country for three decades, the language difference between the two communities was highlighted. You talk about common ancestry. How do you analyse the reason for this crisis from a historical point of view?
Well, you may know that until 1950s there was no conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils. They had co-existed and lived in harmony for more than 2000 years. In the predominantly Sinhalese part of the country, Tamils and others of Indian origin who have come and settled in the country were assimilated into the Sinhalese society. There was the similar development in the North-East.
QIt means Tamils have been absorbed into the mainstream Sinhala society?
Yes, in the central and southern parts. The Sinhalese could have gone to the north because of the Buddhist establishments, as traders and artisans and even as mercenaries. They were absorbed into the Tamil society. In the 16th century, when the Portuguese came to the island, it was clearly divided into two linguistic zones. There was the kingdom of Jaffna in the north and in the east there were the principalities of the Vanni, occupied chiefly by the Tamils. They were all Tamil speaking. The Portuguese and Dutch chroniclers confirm it.
The main difference between the Sinhalese and Tamils was in language. There are customs, linguistics traits, and physiological characteristics common to both peoples. If you go to Batticaloa and remain silent, people there may think that you are a resident of that region. We have common kinship terms. They are not Indo-Aryan. In Sinhala, they say Amma and Thatta. The word’ Thatta’ looks Indo-Aryan. But, it is not so. In ancient Tamil, you have the word ‘Thatai’. In 15th century religion also became a criterion of ethnic identity, around that time the two peoples had become separated in language and religion
When, the British were here they were speaking about three majority communities- the low country Sinhalese, Kandyan Sinhalese and the Ceylon Tamils. Later, somehow or the other, the Ceylon Tamils dropped that concept and considered themselves as a minority community. They wanted enhanced representation in politics. That was how they thought of themselves as a minority.
Disunity between the two major communities was created by Parliamentary enactments. The main plank of British policy was to create a united Ceylonese nation. After Independence that unity was lost. It was, in a sense, the by-product of an excessively centralised system of administration that was inconsistent with the political traditions of the country as observed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the early days of his political career.
Earlier, in the Kandyan kingdom, there was a decentralised system of governance. The cause of its collapse was the struggle at the centre and not the disloyalty of the chieftains at the periphery. The Tamil chieftains in the East who had the designation Vanniyanar had never betrayed the king. They led the armies on behalf of the king. They administered the principalities. They collected taxes. They administered justice in their respective principalities. They had armies of their own. Apart from that, the court summoned the chieftains to discuss important matters relating to the affairs of the kingdom. It was a very different system. In it there was provision for political partnership
QThere is a school of thought that the Tamil population increased remarkably in the north during the Dutch period. The Dutch brought them in large numbers for tobacco cultivation. What is your position?
That is false. They brought South Indian people to cultivate lands. They were settled mostly in Matara. The Dutch never colonised the Jaffna peninsula with people from South India
QHow valid is the claim for the north and the east as the homeland of Tamils?
Who else can make that claim? The Tamils have lived in a contiguous territory in the Northeast as the predominant inhabitants for more than a period of 2000 years. They had developed a mode of production, cleared the jungles, created fields, constructed sources of water supply and developed agriculture, industry and trade in the region.
In the traditional system of administration this area was deemed as historical habitation of the Tamils by the kings of southern Sri Lanka. When Sapumal Kumara conquered Jaffna it was not annexed to the kingdom of Kotte. It was governed as a separate Kingdom.
According to Tamil tradition, Sapumal constructed the Kanthaswamy temple as a temple of royal court at Nallur. He had also issued coins in the name of the God.
Until the mid-20th century no one contested the fact that North-East was the homeland of the Tamils. It is confirmed by archival records and census reports. When they submitted memoranda to two Constitutional Commissions the Kandyans had argued for a federal system of government with three units one of which was the north-eastern region inhabited by Sri Lankan Tamils.
QWe find a lot of Buddhist archeological sites in Jaffna. How do you look at them?
These monuments belong to the period before the 4th century AD. If you go and see the museums in Jaffna and Vavuniya, in all the Buddha images, finials of stupas, Asana Gala and foot-prints, you will find Tamil inscriptions. There were large numbers of Tamil Buddhists. Buddhism was not exclusively Sinhalese until the 15thcentury.
QThen, how did Tamils become predominantly Hindus with Buddhism disappearing among them?
That is somewhat similar to what happened in India. In India, before the advent of Islam, Buddhism was absorbed by Hinduism. Similarly, it was the case even in South India. We have the images from Nagapattinam. On them there are labels written in Tamil. The Buddha has been considered, more or less, as a God. Buddhism cannot survive without the Sangha, which requires the patronage of the community of laymen.
When laymen are converted to other religions the Sangha cannot survive. In the maritime parts of Sri Lanka the last vestiges of Buddhism, were destroyed by the Portuguese.
QFrom a sociological point of view, if you look at the caste system in the north, it is not similar to the caste system in South India. It is somewhat similar to the caste system in the south of Sri Lanka? How do you look at it?
That is because of a common ancestry in the remote past.
QAnother school of thought is that the split between the Tamils and the Sinhalese is a phenomenon created by the British, who adopted the ‘divide and rule’ approach. How do you respond to it?
That concept is floated even by some Sri Lankans living abroad. Of course, it has validity in relation to India. It has no relevance to the Sri Lankan situation. There is no evidence to establish the fact that the British supported the Tamils against the Sinhalese. This is of our making. We have to think about it and resolve it among ourselves
QWhat is the best way you suggest for it?
Well, I told you that these two peoples lived as two separate ethnic identities in separate territories. I do not say that they should be separated from each other entirely in the modern context. You must have a form of government that enjoys the confidence of both peoples.
That means that there should be a new constitution that accommodates the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. It should be made on the basis of a national consensus. It should confirm to internationally accepted norms and practices. There should be a power-sharing arrangement to the widest possible extent. There should be a participatory democracy with provision for accountability, transparency and human rights
The Sinhalese are about 75 percent of the population now and they are bound to have a position of predominance even under a federal constitution. The substance of sovereignty will be exercised by them. But, what is important is that this sovereignty should be exercised with the consent of the Tamil people and with provision for the participation and sharing of power. Both communities have to relieve themselves from the mindset of the 30 years of war and work together earnestly to create the conditions for durable peace, co-existence and harmony.