The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle – 2

2. National-Ethnic Structure and Early History

Sri Lanka presents a rich diversity of peoples and cultures, some ancient and indigenous,
others modern and transplanted. From the early centuries of its long history, Sri Lanka has
been a diverse society, the components of diversity being ethnicity, language and religion. l
The island’s geographical proximity to India, its strategic location on the east-west sea route
and the mercantile and territorial encroachments of the European powers contributed to the
ethnolinguistic and religious makeup of the country.
Every great change that swept India had its repercussions in the island and, until the
beginning of the 16th Century, Sri Lanka was a pawn in the power struggles of the south
Indian Tamil kingdoms of Pandya, Chola and Chera. During the four and a half centuries of
European rule, beginning with the Portuguese conquest of maritime areas in 1505, the
elements of diversity have kept increasing. And by the time of the British conquest, in 1796,
the island had acquired its multi-ethnic structure, the two well developed ethnolinguistic
cultures of Sinhalese and Tamil, and the four great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism,
Christianity and Islam. While the island as a natural geographical unit imposed a certain
unity on the people, their diverse cultures, which are a residue of history, dictated separate
collective identities and solidarities.
The outstanding fact of Sri Lanka’s nationality structure is that, from ancient times and
continuously over the last two millennia, two major ethnic people—the Sinhalese and the
Tamils—have lived in and shared the country as co settlers This shared descent is traceable
to the 2nd Century BC. The history of the people before that time has not been unravelled on
a valid historical basis and is wrapped up in myths and legends invented by the Pali
chronicles of the Sinhalese—the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa—written in about the 4th and
6th Centuries AD, respectively.
Both these chronicles are verse compositions in Pali, the Buddhist scriptural language,
written by Buddhist monks, not in the historical tradition but as being the words of
Mahanama, the author of Mahavamsa, “for the serene joy and emotion of the piously They
were written unabashedly from the Sinhalese Buddhist Standpoint, lauding the victories of
the Sinhalese kings over the Tamil kings, treating the former as protectors of Buddhism and
saviours of the Sinhalese, While deriding the latter as invaders, vandals, marauders and
In an effort to establish that the Sinhalese are the original occupiers of the island, the
chronicles misrepresent the aboriginal Nega and Yaksha (or Raksa) Tamil people as non
humans, and validate their version by creating myths about the past. yet these chronicles and
their stories have been relied upon by historians for the reconstruction of the early history of
the island, and this mythological history has been retold in later Sinhalese historical and
literary works, and repeated in the Buddhist rituals, so that they constitute the current beliefs
of the Sinhalese. They exert a direct influence on present day ethnic relations in Sri Lanka.
As Walter Schwarz, a perceptive writer on the national question in Sri Lanka, has observed:
“The most important effect of the early history on the minority problem of today is not in the
facts but in the myths that surround them, particularly on the Sinhalese side.”2
2.1 Sinhalese and Tamils—Origin, Myth and Truth
It is not established on valid historical grounds when and how the Sinhalese emerged as an
ethnic people in the country. There exists no historical evidence for a Sinhalese presence
before the 2nd Century BC. The place of evidence has been taken by the Vijaya legend,
invented by the authors of the chronicles. The Dipavamsa, literally “The Story of the Island”
(probably written in the 4th Century AD), purports to narrate the story of the island from the
earliest human times.
It introduces Vijaya, as the first occupant and founder of the Sinhalese, in these words: “This
was the island of Lanka called Sihala after the lion. Listen to this chronicle of the origin of
the island which I narrate.” According to the chronicle, Vijaya, the grandson of a union
between a petty Indian king and a lioness, on being banished for misconduct by his father
Sinhabahu (the lion armed), came with 700 men by vessels and landed on the west coast of
Lanka, at a place called Tambapanni, in 543 BC, on the day Buddha died, i.e. passed into
nibbana. Vijaya’s men were lured into a cave and captured by a demoness (Yaksha) queen
named Kuveni. Vijaya rescued his men, married Kuveni and had a son and daughter.
Vijaya later told Kuveni that before being crowned king of Lanka he should marry a human
princess. He therefore banished Kuveni and the children into the jungles, sent his ministers to
the Tamil king Pandyan, who ruled the Madurai kingdom in south India, and took the king’s
daughter as his wife. His men also obtained their wives from the Madurai region. Kuveni was
later killed by the demons. In the jungles, the children married incestuously and had many
children, from whom, the chronicle states, the Veddas3
of Sri Lanka arose.
Vijaya is said to have held his coronation and made himself the king of Lanka and ruled for
38 years from Tambapanni, his capital. He and the Tamil princess had no children and hence,
on his death, his brother’s son Pandu Vasudeva came from Bengal and became the king of
Lanka. This story has been re told with greater embellishment in the Mahavamsa, literally
“The Story of the Great Dynasty” (written in the 6th Century AD), the source of the present
day early history of Sri Lanka.
There is no historical evidence whatsoever for the arrival of Vijaya and the related story.
There is no trace of a place named Sinhapura or of the petty king Sinhabahu in Bengali
history. But because of their inability to account historically for the emergence of the
Sinhalese, historians follow the lead of the Vijaya legend.4
Thus K.M. de Silva, Professor of
History at the University of Sri Lanka, states:
Both legend and linguistic evidence indicate that the Sinhalese were a people of Aryan origin
who came to the island from Northern India about 500 BC. The exact location of their
original home in India cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. The founding of
the Sinhalese is treated in elaborate detail in the Mahavamsa with great emphasis on the
arrival of Vijaya (the legendary founding father of the Sinhalese) and his band in the island.5
On the basis of this legend, the present day Sinhalese claim that they are the first settlers and
are of Aryan origin. The foremost propagandist of the Sinhala Buddhist “revival”, Anagarika
Dharmapala, wrote in 1902 on the origin of the Sinhalese:
Two thousand four hundred and forty six years ago a colony of Aryans from the city of
Sinhapura in Bengal . . . sailed in a vessel in search of fresh pastures . . . The descendants of
the Aryan colonists were called Sinhala after their city Sinhapura, which was founded by
Sinhabahu the lion armed king. The lion armed descendants are the present Sinhalese .6
The chronicles introduce the mythical Vijaya and his men as the first settlers and proceed to
misrepresent the settled Tamil Naga and Yaksha people as non humans. The former are
described as “snakes” and the latter as “demons”. This has also been uncritically repeated by
modern historians according to whom the Nagas and Yaksha are non humans of prehistoric
times .
But it is an undeniable fact that, in the proto historic period of the island to (c.1000-100 BC),
there were two Naga kingdoms, one in the north called Naga Tivu in Tamil, and called Naga
Dipa in the Indian Sanskrit works, and the other in the south west, in Kelaniya. Even the Pali
chronicles mention them in a different context, in connection with the purported visits of
Buddha to the island. The Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two great Indian epics written in
Sanskrit before the 6th Century BC mention the Naga kingdoms and their conquest by
Ravanan, the Tamii Yaksha king of Lanka. So does the Greek astronomer and geographer
Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd Century AD, who locates Naga Dipa in the north, covering the
territory from Chilaw in the west to below Trincomalee in the east.
According to tradition, the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the lineal descendants of the
Naga and Yaksha people. The aboriginal Nagas, called Nakar in Tamil had the cobra
(Nakam, in Tamil) as their totem. The Hindu Tamils, to this day, continue to worship the
cobra as a subordinate deity in the Hindu pantheon and there are many temples for the cobra
deity all over north Sri Lanka.7 Equally, the Yakshas were not demons but worshippers of
demons, as shown by the still prevalent practice among the Hindu Tamils of propitiating the
demons, which arose out of primitive fear and belief in the destructive power of demons.
Ptolemy describes the Tamil Yaksha people:
“The ears of both men and women are very large, in which they wear earrings ornamented
with precious stones.”
The wearing of ear rings by both men and women is a custom still extant among the Tamils
in the villages of north Sri Lanka and in south India, and the poor, unable to purchase gold
ear rings, wear rolled palmyrah leaves instead. That the ancestors of the present day Tamils
were the original inhabitants of Lanka is well brought out by the historian Harry Williams:
“Naga Dipa in the north of Sri Lanka was an actual kingdom known to historians” and “the
people who occupied it were all part of an immigrant tribe from South India—Tamil people
called Nagars”.8
Another writer states: ” . . . long before the coming of the Sinhalese there would have been
long periods when the island was inhabited by the ancestors of the present Tamil
Recent archaeological excavations of burial mounds in the old Naga Dipa area, which
covered a region from Chilaw up to Trincomalee through Anuradhapura, have shown skeletal
remains of a people of megalithic culture who practised inhumation as a mode of burial in the
proto historic period. The artefacts found within, such as rouletted pottery with graffiti
symbols, iron nails, bronze seal rings, arrow heads, spears and daggers, show that those
people had a settled and civilized life. The Sangam literature (lst- 4th Century AD), reflecting
the indigenous cultural tradition of the Tamils of south India, mentions inhumation as a
custom then prevalent. These finds have, on paleographical reckoning, been dated to not later
than the 4th Century BC 10 and the skeletal remains classified as those of south Indian
type.11The north western urn burial site (Pomparippu) is said to offer many parallels with
those found on the Coromandel coast of Tamil Nadu, south India. 12
Ptolemy refers to Naga kingdoms on the Coromandel coast, and towns with toponyms like
Nagar Koil and Naga Patinam, appearing from the earliest times, confirm that Naga people of
the same origin occupied the Tamil areas of south India and Sri Lanka. The latter may have
migrated from south India in early times, when Sri Lanka was certainly joined to mainland
India through the shallow ridge of sandbanks called Adam’s (or Rama’s) Bridge in the Gulf of
Mannar. Furthermore, the important find of a statuette of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of
good fortune, in the Anaikoddai excavation (1982) confirms other evidence that the Naga
people were Hindus and that Hinduism was the religion of the people of Sri Lanka before the
introduction of Buddhism.13
The conclusions that could validly be drawn from the new historical data clearly establish
that the ancestors of the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island, long
before 543 BC, which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka.
How, then, does one explain the emergence of the Sinhalese as an ethnic entity in the island?
In the 3rd Century BC (the date usually assigned is 247 BC), Buddhism was introduced into
the island by missionaries led by Bikkhu (Buddhist monk) Mahinda, possibly the son of
Asoka, the great Emperor of India (c 273 – 232 BC), who became converted to Buddhism and
was determined to spread the religion far and wide.
Devanampriya Theesan the Tamil Hindu king of Lanka at that time, accepted the
missionaries from Asoka and became converted to Buddhism. Since, in those days, the
religion of the ruler became the religion of the people, and because Hinduism has always
been infinitely flexible and little given to rigorous dogma, Buddhism, being an offshoot of
Hinduism, spread fast in the island.
Mahinda brought not only the religions message but also the Pali canon, i.e. the scriptures as
preached by Buddha in Pali, a language of Aryan people who overran India in ancient times,
driving the Dravidians—the pre Aryan people of north and central India—southwards. The
Buddha dhamma (the doctrine comprising the moral order), or at least the basic “five
precepts” were taught to the people in Pali, and they are still recited by the Buddhists in Pali.
The Sangha (the order of Buddhist monks), whose prerogative it was to know and preach the
doctrine, learnt Pali in order to understand the dhamma as well as the Vinaya (rules of
discipline for the Sangha). In this way, with Buddhism came Pali, a new language, and it was
learnt by the bhikkhus to preach the dhamma as well as for the writing of books, just as Latin
was used by the Christian clergy in medieval Europe.
In the course of time, the Sinhalese language as well as the alphabet and the script grew from
the Pali language. With the spread of Buddhism and the growth of the Prakritic Sinhalese
language, there occurred a religio linguistic division of the people into those who remained
Hindu Tamils and the emergent Buddhists speaking the Sinhalese language. This
development can be inferred from a number of Sinhalese Buddhist features in Sri Lanka.
Firstly, there is no evidence whatsoever of the Sinhalese as a people, or of Sinhala as a
language, before the introduction of Buddhism in 247 BC. The earliest cave inscriptions are
in the same Brahmic script as the famous Rock Edicts of Asoka in western India. The
Encyclopaedia Britannica states:
The earliest surviving specimens of the (Sinhalese) language are brief inscriptions on rock, in
Brahmi letters, of which the earliest date from c 200 BC. The language of these inscriptions
does not appear to be greatly different from the other Indian Prakrits (i.e. chronologically
Middle Indo Aryan languages) of the time.l4
Secondly, the Sinhalese Buddhists, in the practice of Buddhism, have not quite succeeded in
freeing themselves from their Hindu past. They continue to worship the Hindu deities,
although Buddha revolted against the worship of gods and Buddhism opposes idol worship.15
Thirdly, the caste system, the central feature of Hindu society, prevails among the Sinhalese
Buddhists, although Buddhism is opposed to caste. This again is a vestige of the Hindu past.
These, taken together with the historical and archaeological data outlined earlier, lead one to
the irresistible conclusion that Sinhalese emerged as a result of the ascriptive cleavage
consequent upon the spread of Buddhism in the Pali language. The Sinhalese, then, in terms
of their origin, are not an Aryan people as popularly claimed, but Tamil people who adopted
a language which developed from Pali, an Aryan dialect.
Even the pioneer Sri Lanka historian Dr G.C. Mendis, although he uncritically accepted the
Vijaya legend of the chronicles, was left in doubt about its validity and observed:
” . . . it is not possible to state whether they [the Sinhalese] were Aryan by blood or whether
they were a non Aryan people who had adopted an Aryan dialect as their language”.16
Equally, Dr S. Paranavitana, the former Archaeological Commissioner, stated:
“Thus the vast majority of the people who today speak Sinhalese or Tamil must ultimately be
descended from those autochthonous people of whom we know next to nothing.”l7
2.2 The Sinhalese Ethnic Identity
There is, however, no single origin of the present day Sinhalese, as over the centuries diverse
people have merged to form the Sinhalese ethnicity. The Tamils, living among the Sinhalese
in the south, “gradually adopted the Sinhalese language, as some of them still do in some of
the coastal districts, and were merged in the Sinhalese population”.l8
Between the 14th and 18th Centuries, large numbers of Dravidians, mostly from Malabar,
south India, came over and settled and were assimilated as Sinhalese. So did the Colombo
Chetties, whose ancestors came from the Chettiar community, in Tirunelveli district of Tamil
Nadu, owing to a great famine there in the 17th Century.
Furthermore, in 1739, since Sri Narendrasinghe, the Sinhalese king of the Kandyan kingdom,
had no suitable progeny to succeed him, the brother of his Tamil queen, from the Nayakkar
royal dynasty in Madurai, ascended the throne and took on the Sinhalese name Sri Vijaya
Rajasinghe. This line of Tamil kings continued until the Kandyan kingdom was ceded to the
British in 1815. The kings of the Nayakkar dynasty took on Sinhalese names and professed
Buddhism to please their subjects. So did their families, courtiers and retinue, who came over
in substantial numbers.l9
Hence, in reality, as Dr N.K. Sarkar has put it: ” . . . no matter what the racial origin, little
remains of the original stock, except a belief in it”.20 Broadly speaking, in terms of present
day identification and self image, a Sinhalese is one who bears a Sinhalese name and speaks
the Sinhala language, whatever his origins may be.
The Sinhalese people and the Sinhala language are found only in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala
language is the mother tongue of the Sinhalese, who are 71.9% (69.3% in 1953) of the Sri
Lankan population, today a little over 15 million. In 1953, Sinhala was the only language
spoken by 58.9%, Sinhala and Tamil by 9.9% and Sinhala and English by 4.29 of persons
three years and over. The Tamils (both Ceylon Tamils and “Indian” Tamils) constitute 20.5%
( 22.9% in 1953) of the Sri Lankan population. The Tamil language is the mother tongue of
the Tamils and also of almost all Ceylon Muslims (or Moors) who form 6.5% of the
population, and the Indian (or “Coast”) Muslims who form 0.2%. Tamil was the only
language spoken by 21.6% and Tamil and English by 2.9% of persons three years and over.21
The Sinhala language grew out of Pali and is not connected to the present day Indo Aryan
languages of northern India, which are all related, with varying degrees of kinship, to
Sanskrit language. The vocabulary consists basically of Pali words with many Sanskrit and
Tamil loan words. The long vowels of the Pali words are shortened and the double
consonants reduced to single ones. Dr W.S. Karunatillake admits:
“There have been several linguistic traditions that have exerted varying degrees of influence
on the development of the Sinhalese language. Of these Tamil is one of the most important.
There is reason to believe that in the past, the study of Tamil language and literature was
cherished by the Sinhalese scholars.”22
Sinhalese is written in a variation of the Pali script, but in rounded letters like those of the
Dravidian language scripts, closely resembling Telegu letters. In the first century AD, the
Sinhalese alphabet showed a sudden deviation from the letters inscribed in the rocks and
resembled those in the inscriptions of the Andhra kingdom, and was probably introduced
from there. At that time, Andhra was a great centre of Buddhism, with the famed Amaravati
and Nagarjunikonda, on the river Krishna. And, according to Benjamin Rowland, in his Art
and Architecture of India, the Nagarjunikonda “monasteries included one building
specifically reserved for resident monks from Ceylon”.
Until the 6th Century, the Sinhalese language remained in its Prakritic stage, and it was only
by the 10th Century that the language and script developed almost to its present form. Pali
died out in India by about the 12th Century but is used as the standard language of Theravada
Buddhism, which prevails in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Kampuchea.
The earliest Sinhalese literary works were produced towards the end of the 10th Century.
Much literature was produced in the 13th and 14th Centuries, all by bhikkhus, and this is
considered to be the classical period of Sinhalese literature. They were all of Buddhist
religious inspiration, comprising commentaries on sacred texts and elaborations of the
Jatakas (the tales of previous births of Buddha). As the premier work of Sinhalese poetry,
Kavsilumina, states: “The choicest flower of the tree of scholarship is the portrayal of the
grandeur of Buddha.” Secular literature began only in the 20th Century.
Buddhism and Hinduism were the only religions of the Sinhalese and Tamils, respectively,
until, following upon the Portuguese conquest of the littoral areas in 1505, Catholicism was
introduced by the Portuguese and a minority of the Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils
became converted to it Later, under the British conquest and occupation (1796 – 1947), there
were further conversions to Protestant Christianity by both Sinhalese and Tamils, particularly
the English educated elite. Today, 67.4% are Buddhists (all Sinhalese), 17.69 are Hindus (all
Tamils), 7.1% are Muslims, 6.4% are Catholics and 1.4% are Protestant Christians. 93.5% of
the Sinhalese are Buddhists and 6.5% are Catholics or Protestant Christians. Of the Tamils,
81% are Hindus and the rest are Catholic or Protestant Christians.
Religious division has taken place in such a way that being a Buddhist implies being a
Sinhalese, and being a Hindu implies being a Tamil. Despite this contrasting ethno religious
configuration, there has been no conflict between the two on religious grounds. Between the
Buddhists and Muslims there have been conflicts, such as the 1915 riots, and also sporadic
fighting in recent times over religious differences. There were also clashes between the
Sinhalese Buddhists and Sinhalese Catholics in the early 1960s over Catholic dominance of
the public and defence services, over education and over what the Buddhist chauvinists then
objected to as the Catholic clergy “representing a foreign power” and engaging in “Catholic
action”, i.e. insidious priestly intervention in the recruitment and promotion of Catholics in
government jobs.
The Mahavamsa links the story of the landing of Vijaya, the “origin myth”, to a series of
religious myths regarding the place of Buddhism in Lanka, as ordained by Buddha.
According to the chronicle, Vijaya landed on the day Buddha passed into nibbana (death and
enlightenment). Both these events are recorded as having occurred in 543 BC. The chronicle
“The prince named Vijaya, the valiant, landed in Lanka, in the region called Tambapanni on
the day the Tathagatha (another name for Buddha) lay down between two twin like sala trees
to pass into nibbana.”
In this way, the chronicle vests the “origin myth” with a religious significance. Even more
important is the assertion in the chronicle that Buddha, just before his death, summoned
Sakka, the king of gods and the divine protector of the sasana (the dhamma doctrine as taught
by Buddha), and instructed him:
“Vijaya, son of Sinhabahu, is come to Lanka . . . together with 700 followers. In Lanka, O
Lord of Gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his
followers and Lanka.”
By such injunctions of the Master, the chronicle represents Vijaya and his supposed
descendants the Sinhalese Buddhists—as a chosen people with the special mission of
preserving the Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka.
These are reinforced by further myths of visits of Buddha to the island, to make the “pious”
believe that the island has been consecrated by Buddha. His first visit is set out thus:
” . . . at the ninth moon of his buddhahood, at the full moon of Phussa, himself set forth to the
isle of Lanka, to win Lanka for the faith, for Lanka was known to the Conqueror as a place
where his doctrine should shine in glory”.
According to the chronicle, this visit was to Mahiyangana, in the south east, where Buddha is
said to have quelled the heathen Yakshas. His second is said to be to Naga Dipa, in the north,
where he quelled the Nagas. On his third visit, Buddha is said to have gone to Kelaniya and
several other places, including Anuradhapura, and “left traces of his footprints plain to see on
Sumanakuta”. i.e. Adam’s Peak.
In the 1960s, when the renowned archaeologist Paranavitana (himself a Buddhist), in an
attempt to demythologize these tales, declared that the chronicle’s account of Buddha’s visits
was pure legend, the bhikkhus raised a hue and cry. These myths haunt the minds of the
people and prevent honest scientific inquiry into Sri Lanka’s antiquity.
In their myth making endeavour, the chroniclers falsified not only the early history of the
island but even the great historical event of Buddha’s nibbana. They wrongly took 543 BC as
the year of Buddha’s nibbana and made the supposed arrival of Vijaya coincide with it.
Wilhelm Geiger and Mabel Bode the eminent scholars of Pali Buddhism, date Buddha’s
nibbana in 483 BC. According to the views of such scholars as General Cunningham, T.W.
Rhys-Davids, Max Muller, Vincent Smith, Percival Spear and H. Parker, Buddha’s nibbana
could not have occurred before 486 BC. D.C. Sircar, the epigraphist of the government of
India, convincingly calculates nibbana to have occurred in 486 BC.23 This is 57 years
subsequent to the date stated by the Mahavamsa.
When such a great historical and religious event of international importance could be
distorted to suit the whims of the author of the chronicle, could any reliance be placed on the
other stories of the chronicle? That they were written as panegyrics “for the serene joy and
emotion of the pious” has been forgotten. On the distortion of historical events by
Mahavamsa, H . Parker in Ancient Ceylon observes:
Tissa ascended the throne in 245 BC and is said to have reigned for 40 years; but this cannot
be trusted, as the reign of kings who lived about the time have been extended to make the
supposed arrival of the first Magadhese settlers under Vijaya synchronise with the very
doubtful date adopted by the Sinhalese historians as the time when Buddha attained Nirvana
or died, viz. 543 BC.24
Regarding Buddha’s visits, there is no evidence whatsoever, not even legends in India or any
of the Buddhist countries, to support them. This genre of Mahavamsa stories is nothing but a
tangled web of cleverly contrived fictions purely for “the serene joy and emotion of the
But because of their unquestioned repetition in later historical and literary works
(Culavamsa, Pujavaliya, Thupavamsa, Rajavaliya, etc.), all of religious inspiration, and on
being orally transmitted from generation to generation in the Buddhist rituals they occupy a
revered place in present day Sinhalese Buddhist popular beliefs. Sinhalese scholars have
represented these myths and fictions as the early history of Lanka. In 1956, Dr Walpola
Rahula, the scholar monk wrote that “for more than two millennia the Sinhalese have been
inspired that they were a nation brought into being for the definite purpose of carrying the
torch lit by Buddha”.25
Contemporary Buddhism in Sri Lanka has little of the doctrinal and philosophical goals of
the ancestral religion. The doctrine’s prime non worldly goal of striving for salvation, by
withdrawal and ascetic renunciation of worldly craving, has been drastically transformed in
recent times by selfstyled “revivalists” under the slogan of a “return to righteousness”.
As such, the Buddhism of the urban elite vigorously pursues the goods and wealth of this
world. It is also markedly anti Buddhist in being aggressively intolerant of other religions
and ethnic entities, and is encrusted with grand visions of Sinhalese Buddhist domination of
the island. Village Buddhism, on the other hand, is steeped in magic and exorcism, folklore
and myths, pilgrimages and pageantry. While the belief in the truth of the doctrine certainly
prevails and iconic images of Buddha are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, the knowledge of the
doctrine and the practice of the Buddhist ethical way of life are conspicuously absent at all
levels. Surveying the scene, Dr E.W. Adikaram, a lay Buddhist scholar, recently protested:
The Buddhists who get worked up over real or imaginary wrongdoings of others are injuring
themselves first. They are also creating an oppressive atmosphere which is not conducive to
any spiritual growth. A person with even a little sensitiveness can feel this oppressive
atmosphere in Sri Lanka today . . . if Buddhism is merely an empty shell devoid of love and
compassion, the earlier it disappears the better it is for the world.26
Though Buddhism infinitely values human life as being the one and only condition from
which nibbana is attainable, Sri Lanka is reputed to have the highest murder rate per capita in
the world. The Mahavamsa made a virtue of killing in defence of Buddhism, in its panegyric
of the victories of the Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu over the Tamil king Ellalan, in the 2nd
Century BC war in which thousands of Tamils were killed.
The chronicle capriciously states that Dutugemunu’s war cry was: “Not for kingdom, but for
Buddhism.” According to the chronicle, Dutugemunu, in repentance over the lives lost in
war, addressed the eight arhats (saints):
“How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the
slaughter of a great host numbering millions?”
The arhats replied:
“From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven . . . Unbelievers and men of evil
life were they, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to
the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler
of men.”
This 2nd Century BC war was recalled by Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists and, in 1956, Dr
Walpola Rahula characterised it as the “beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese”.27 on
the perpetuation of this myth, Professor Gananath Obeyesekere states:
. . . the mythic significance of Dutugemunu as the saviour of the Sinhalese race and of
Buddhism grew through the years and developed into one of the most important myths of the
Sinhalese, ready to be used as a powerful instrument of Sinhalese nationalism in modern
times. Although the justification for killing is unusual, the general message that emerges is
everywhere the same: the Sinhalese kings are defenders of the secular realm and the sasana;
their opponents are the Tamils.28
The Sinhalese Buddhist collective consciousness is symbolized in pilgrimages and pereheras
(religious processions), bana (sermon preaching), sil ( meditation), pirit (reciting of sacred
texts to exorcise evil spirits), vesak (celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away
of Buddha), dana (giving of alms), tovile (devil dancing) and other ceremonies.
The Sinhalese are broadly divided into the low country and up country (or Kandyan)
Sinhalese. This division is not ethnic, but came about as a result of the European occupation
of the littoral and the rise of the Kandyan kingdom, which prevailed from the 16th Century
till its cession to the British in 1815.
The low country Sinhalese are now 40%, and the Kandyans 29%, of the total Sri Lankan
population. The former occupy the western and southern coastal, mainly urban, areas and
were subject to European influence continuously from the time of the Portuguese conquest.
The latter live in the central highlands and the north central plains, mainly rural areas, and
had a traditional social structure and way of life centred around the monarchy, feudal
aristocracy and Buddhist monasteries.
Both the low country and the Kandyan Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhists. Of the
Sinhalese Christians, the low country Sinhalese are about 62% and the rest are Kandyans.
Although the cultural differences between the two were slight, the Kandyan traditional elite
opposed the early British attempts to administratively integrate the Kandyan with the low
country regions. And in the 20th Century constitutional reform representations, the English
educated Kandyan elite stridently asserted that they were a “nation” separate and distinct, for
fear of domination by their more articulate low country brethren.29
The personal laws of the Kandyans are their own customary laws, whereas the low country
Sinhalese come under Roman Dutch law, introduced during the Dutch occupation of the
littoral from 1656 to 1795. The low country Sinhalese were the first to take advantage of the
political and economic changes which colonialism brought about. They serviced the coffee
plantations established by the British as building and cart transport contractors, artificers,
arrack and toddy renters and retail traders, and with the profits earned they bought coffee,
coconut and later rubber estates.
It was also from the low country Sinhalese that the British recruited the local intermediaries
for the consolidation of colonialism. Those who played this role soon abandoned the
Buddhist religion and embraced Christianity, put on Western dress, repudiated traditional
customs, values and food, and adopted European customs, consumption patterns and life
Their leaders were soon co opted as nominated members into the Governor’s Legislative
Council, and they advanced politically through the Ceylon National Congress, founded in
1920. Since independence, the low country Sinhalese have provided the leadership of all
Sinhalese political parties, with the exception of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike (nee Ratwatte),
who, being born into a Kandyan feudal aristocratic (Radala) family, married S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike, a scion of a low country Sinhalese family, which received great rewards and
patronage from the British.
There exist significant internal differences within the Sinhalese on the basis of caste. A caste
society has endogamous kinship groups, with hierarchical ordering of occupations and
services on a hereditary basis. Caste divisions were integral to, and a surviving remnant of,
ancient Hindu society. There is no certainty as to how it arose but has been perpetuated by
the old Hindu conception of the group as the basic unit of organization, and by the belief in
karma, i.e. the state of life a person is born into is due to his actions in his previous birth.
But, although Buddhism and Christianity are theoretically opposed to caste divisions, such
divisions prevail among the Sinhalese, low country and Kandyan, Buddhists and Christians,
alike. But the Sinhalese caste divisions are not as deep, nor their influence so pervasive, nor
their observance so rigid, as among the Hindu Tamils. In particular, there are no Brahmin
priestly caste and no “untouchables” among the Sinhalese.
The conventional “highest” caste are the Goyigama caste Sinhalese, in origin agriculturalists,
and they predominate among both the low country and the Kandyans. They form about 51%
of the low country Sinhalese and nearly 85% of the Kandyan Sinhalese.30 Within the low
country Sinhalese, the Karava come next (about 17%), followed by the Salagama (about 8%)
and the Durava (about 6%). Those who constitute the last three castes are mainly Tamils and
Malayalis who came from south India between the 14th and 18th Centuries as fishermen,
cinnamon peelers, etc. and were not socially accepted by the Goyigama, although they
became Sinhalised by acculturation. The “low” or “depressed” castes among the low country
Sinhalese are the Batgam, Wahumpara, Berava, Hina, Rajaka, etc.
Traditional Kandyan society was one of status based feudal relations between the landowning
aristocracy, or the Radala (Kandyan Goyigama), and the landless who rendered various
obligatory services to the former. The landless comprised a number of Goyigama sub castes
placed lower down in the ritual hierarchy. There were also a few non Goyigama low caste
groups. Professor Bryce Ryan, in his study of Sinhalese caste patterns, observed:
“Where the Radala exists, caste differentiation generally is at its maximum, for around him
adhere the various service castes and with him, too, traditional modes of conduct persist.”31
The caste division among the Sinhalese is most evident in endogamy, cross caste marriages
being rare compared to inter ethnic marriages and marriages outside one’s religion. In the
rural, particularly Buddhist areas, caste and class boundaries often coincide: the rich and the
dominant are the Goylgama; the poor and the oppressed are of low caste.
During the British colonial period there were considerable factional rivalries for political and
economic ascendance between the elite of the low country Goyigama and the Karava; and
between the low country Goyigama and the Kandyan Goyigama. The Tamil Vellala (the
equivalent highest” caste to the Goyigama) elite always combined with the low country
Goyigama and against the Karava, on the basis of upper caste exclusiveness and loyalties.
It must be remembered that inter dining and intermarriage between castes was taboo. With
the bourgeoisie, loyalties were based first on class, then on caste, and ethnicity at that time
did not seem a likely framework for domination. Because of this, the Goyigama always
treated the Karava with contempt, while it freely coalesced with the Tamil Vellala.
This was to have its repercussions later on, when, mainly in order to crack this low country
Goyigama Tamil Vellala alliance, the Karava elite created the “Sinhala only” law and
became its most unrelenting agitators. Nearly all the front line “Sinhalese only” zealots, and
the bhikkhu campaigners of the Ramanya sect, were Karavas.
From that time to the present, it has been the Karava pressure group that has determined the
course of the Sinhalese Tamil ethnic conflict in the country. Briefly stated, it has a powerful
vested interest, for it is also basically a lower middle class group and earlier found itself in
competition (in education, employment, etc.) with the Tamils, predominantly a functional
lower middle class community. The Karava took a head start in servicing the plantations and
serving the colonial administration, and were initially in the ascendance, but were ousted
from about 1920 by the low country Goyigama elite .
Sinhalese collective identity, in terms of self ascription, is not an ethnic identity but an ethno
religious identity—Sinhalese Buddhist. The dominant distinguishing mark is Buddhist
religious culture, which is central in the self perception of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The
emergence of the Sinhalese Catholics and Protestants brought about a cleavage in Sinhalese
identity. To the Sinhalese Buddhists—in particular, to the Kandyans the Sinhalese non
Buddhists are as much non Sinhalese as Tamils or Muslims, for their point of reference is
religion and not linguistic identity.
Professor Gananath Obeyesekere pointed out that this self image resulted from the
conversion of some Sinhalese to Christianity.
This identity simply equates Sinhalese = Buddhist—the two cultural labels are the
constituent elements of a single identity . . . The Sinhalese Buddhists today perceive the
Sinhalese Christians as not only nonBuddhists, but also in a sense as non Sinhalese, for their
Christian cultural markers are viewed as alien.32
This religious centrality in the self perception of the Sinhalese Buddhists is not something
new; it was so in the pre colonial times. Professor Obeyesekere states:
Up to the 16th century being a Sinhalese implied being a Buddhist . . . With the advent of the
European powers, a split in the Sinhalese identity occurred as a result of the existence of
Catholic and Protestant Sinhalese who were clearly not Buddhist. Sinhalese ceased to be an
ethnic identity.
The Catholic and Protestant Sinhalese, too, define themselves more in terms of their
respective religion than their linguistic culture. It is their religious sub culture that is critical
in their self ascription. In fact, when English held sway, i.e. before the “Sinhala only” law in
1956, the Sinhalese Christians found more in common with the Tamil Christians than with
the Sinhalese Buddhists. And up to the “Sinhala only” law, there was considerable religious
tolerance between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus.
But today the Tamils, be they Hindus or Christians, view the Sinhalese as a monolithic entity
united in a single endeavour to subjugate and destroy their identity as a distinct ethnic entity
in the country.
2.3 Tamil Ethnic Identity
The Sri Lanka Tamils of today are the lineal descendants of the original inhabitants of the
island. To this ancient ancestry, the latter day invasions by the armies of the south Indian
Tamil Pandyan, Chola and Chera kings, and those raised by the usurping Sinhalese kings,
made successive additions. In the proto historic period of the island, the early totemistic
Tamil tribes migrated from their homelands in south India and settled in the north, in the
south west around Kelaniya and in the south east around the river Walawe Ganga. In the
north, they founded a sovereign kingdom called Naga Dipa. In the 2nd Century AD, Ptolemy
located the earlier Naga Dipa kingdom as covering the territory from Chilaw in the west to
below Trincomalee in the east. The ancient Tamil name of the island was Tamaraparani.
From those ancient times of the Naga Dipa kingdom, the Tamils have occupied the
northeastern littoral, which is their exclusive homeland.
At the time of the introduction of Buddhism (3rd Century BC), Tamil kingly rule was centred
in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital which the Tamil kings founded. Devanampriya Theesan,
the Tamil king at that time, was followed by Senan and Kuddikan (177 155 BC) and by
Ellalan (145 101 BC). With the defeat of Ellalan by the Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu, in 101
BC, which is a historical fact, Anuradhapura became the seat of the Sinhalese dynasty.
The popularized Sinhalese version of Sri Lanka history, however, represents Devanampriya
Theesan as a Sinhalese king (which is wrong, for, as was earlier contended, Sinhalese
emerged subsequent to the introduction of Buddhism), and Ellalan (called Elara in Sinhalese)
as “a Chola prince, who invaded Ceylon . . . captured the [Sinhalese] government at
Anuradhapura and ruled for about forty five years”.33
The fact that Tamil kings ruled from Anuradhapura before the rise of the Sinhalese kings is
borne out by Mahavamsa itself, which in Chapter 24, with its usual mystification of kings
and events, states that when Dutugemunu informed his father Kavantissa, ruler of the
southern principality of Ruhuna,that he was going to declare war against the Tamils, his
father replied: “Let Tamils rule that side of the Maha Ganga [now Mahaweli Ganga] and the
districts this side of the Maha Ganga are more than enough for us to rule.”
The chronicle goes on to say that Dutugemunu’s first battle was with a Tamil petty king
Chathan, who was ruling Mahiyangana in the south east, and thereafter he is said to have
fought 31 Tamil petty kings from Mahiyangana to Anuradhapura, before he met Elara in
These episodes from Mahavamsa clearly indicate the location and area the Tamils occupied,
and contradict the notion that Ellalan was a Chola invader from India. Even after the passing
of Anuradhapura into the hands of the Sinhalese kings, a number of Tamil kings at various
times ruled over the Rajarata kingdom.
The history of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka after Ellalan’s death is lost in obscurity as, for
the next 1,000 years, the Pali chronicles describe only the struggles of the Sinhalese king
with the invading south Indian Tamil forces. Hence there is no continuous history of the
fortunes of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka until 1214, when an independent Tamil kingdom,
with its capital in Jaffna, came into existence.
From that time, Sri Lanka was divided into two ethno linguistic nationstates; the Tamils in
the north and east, and the Sinhalese in the south and west the two effectively separated by
impenetrable jungle. These two ethno linguistic nations remained separate and isolated by
reason of separate political loyalties and differences in language, religion, culture and
According to Ibn Battuta, a North African Muslim traveller who visited Ceylon in 1344, the
Tamil king Ariya Chakravarti, who had his royal palace in Jaffna, was a powerful ruler who
owned sea going vessels and a cultured man who could converse in Persian.34
Then, in 1505, the Portuguese conquered the maritime Sinhalese kingdom of Kotte, near
Colombo, and for over a century attempted to conquer the Tamil kingdom, but met the Tamil
military forces in losing battles. The Tamil king Sankili gave great assistance to the Sinhalese
king of Kandy by obtaining reinforcements from south India in the latter’s war against the
Portuguese. This made the latter determined to conquer the Tamil kingdom.
In 1621, the Portuguese finally won the war of conquest, thanks to their superiority in steel
and gunpowder, captured the Tamil king Sankili and took him as captive to their
headquarters in Goa, India, where he was hanged. For a few years thereafter, the Tamils
continued their resistance to foreign rule, under the leadership of a coastal petty king,
Varnakulathian, but were subjugated.
The Portuguese administered the Tamil “Jaffna Patnam”, as they called it, as a separate
domain from their Sinhalese maritime possession. So did the Dutch, who captured it from the
Portuguese. In 1802, by the Treaty of Ancient Holland ceded her possessions in Sri Lanka to
the British, who also Continued to retain the separate identity of the Tamil areas until 1833,
when, for the first time, for administrative convenience, the British unified the low country
Sinhalese, the Kandyan and Tamil areas, and brought them under a Single unitary political
authority—the government of Ceylon.
In this way, the Tamils and the Sinhalese were defeated, severally and at different times, in
battle with the Portuguese conquistadores. Their separate collective identities and political
loyalties were extinguished by conquest and were brought within a unitary Ceylonese nation
Sir Robert Brownrigg, an early British governor of what were then the separate (Tamil)
Jaffna Patnam and the low country Sinhalese region, wrote in his despatch dated 10 July
1813 to the Secretary of State for Colonies:
“The Tamil language, . . . which with a mixture of Portuguese is used through all provinces,
is the proper tongue of the inhabitants from Puttalam to Batticaloa northward inclusive of
both these districts. Your Lordship will therefore have no objection to my putting the Tamil
language on an equal footing of encouragement with the Sinhalese.”
Throughout the British colonial period, the Sinhalese and the Tamil people remained equal in
their subordination to the British raj. Both Sinhalese and Tamil languages were also equal in
their subordination to English, and so were Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity.
According to the 1971 census, Ceylon Tamils numbered 1,415,567, or 11.7% of the
population, and the Indian Tamils, who were recruited as labour for the British plantations in
the l9th Century and settled in Sri Lanka, were 9.4%. Tamil is also the mother tongue of
almost all the Muslims, who are 6.7% of the population. As such, Tamil is the mother tongue
of 27.8% of the people of Sri Lanka.
In India, Tamils number 50 million and live in Tamil Nadu state, extending from Pulicat
Lake to Cape Camorin, and from the Western Ghats to Coromandel coast—the homeland of
Tamils in India. There are substantial settled Tamil communities in Malaysia and Singapore,
and in smaller numbers in Burma, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad and
Guyana; their forefathers were recruited in south India under the indentured labour system,
by the British in the 19th Century, to work in the plantations that were then being opened up.
Although the Tamils have one generic culture, because of this diaspora there are variations in
dialect and distinct sub cultural characteristics.
From 1956, large numbers of educated Sri Lanka Tamils have emigrated as a direct result of
Sinhalese being made the only official language, of escalating violence owing to ethnic
conflict and of government discrimination of Tamils in employment and other fields. Today,
these Tamil emigrants constitute sizeable numbers in Britain, the United States, Canada and
Australia They have chosen to live in these countries, amidst alien cultures, racial
discrimination and low social status, rather than submit to indignities and humiliation in their
own country. From the mid 1970s, a number of political activists and freedom fighters
demanding a separate Tamil state of Eelam, comprising the north and the east, have fled from
police and army repression instigated by the Sri Lanka government and found asylum in
India, Britain, France and West Germany.
The Tamils are Dravidians, an ethnic division (earlier believed to be only a linguistic division
from the Aryans) which includes the Canarese, Malayalis and Andhra people who occupy the
whole of south India. Tamil is the oldest and the principal Dravidian language; in fact,
“Dravida” and “Tamil” are two forms of the same word. The Tamils claim that the word
“Tamil” means sweetness. Karl Graul, the eminent German philologist, says:
“The Tamil language if well spoken, is extremely pleasing to the ear; like honey it is.”
In fact, the greatness of the Tamil language, and its antiquity, has been proclaimed not only
by Tamils but by foreign philologists such as Pope, Caldwell, Ellis (British) Zeigenbalg and
Fabricus (German), Roberto di Nobili and Constantine Beshi (Italian) and Kamil Zvelebil
The Tamils have an ancient literary and cultural heritage. The first Tamil grammar,
Tholkapiyam, was compiled as early as the first millennium BC. The classical Sangam
literature dates from the 1st to the 4th Centuries AD and consists of a collection of poems
including the Eight Anthologies (Ettutogai) and Ten Idylls (Pattupaatu) and a number of
literary works dealing with war, love, religion and society. To these were added, in the 6th
Century, the lyrical epic works Silapadikaram and Manimekhalai and the two didactic works
Thirukkural and Naladiyar. The Ceylon Tamils have maintained their own separate and
distinct linguistic and cultural continuum in the island for so many centuries that in reality
the Tamil literary and cultural heritage of south India operates only as a source of historical
inspiration, particularly in the present context.
As noted earlier, Hinduism was the only religion of the Tamils until the advent of European
powers led to the introduction of Christianity and the conversion of a minority of Tamils to
Catholic or Protestant Christianity Hinduism is the traditional religion of India and
contemporary Hinduism is a synthesis between Aryan Brahamanistic Vaisnavism and
Dravidian Saivism (a cult exalting Siva as the Supreme Being) and Hindu practices. The
latter alone prevails among the Sri Lanka Hindus.
Hindu religious practices consist, in the main, of the worship of deities and a host of rituals.
Hinduism is a religion without missionaries, and is not an “organized” religion. Conversion
to it is technically difficult because a Hindu is born into a particular caste, which the Hindus
believe is predetermined according to one’s Karma, actions in a previous life which influence
the present and future. These notions greatly influence both the religious and social life of
Hindu Tamils.
The Tamil ethnic identity remains a linguistic and cultural identity, unlike the all inclusive
ethno religious identity of the Sinhalese Buddhists To the Tamils, it is the language culture
index that is dominant and commands loyalty, not any particular religious adherence. The Sri
Lanka Hindus faced no such religious problems as the Hindu Muslim confrontation in India.
The original link between Tamil ethnicity and the Hindu religion has come to be severed, and
the Sri Lanka Hindus effectively regard religion as a matter of private conscience. The
Hindus have never called for any official position for their religion in the affairs of state and
do not exert any religious political
The introduction of Christianity did not cause any split in Tamil ethnicity or self perception,
nor lead to the emergence of any perceptible antithesis between Tamil Hindus and Tamil
Catholics or Tamil Christians. This is so despite the fact that 81% of Tamils are Hindus. And
the Hindu revivalist movement initiated by Arumuga Navalar (1829 1870) to denounce
Christianity and regenerate Hinduism did not evoke much public enthusiasm.
The strongest attack on Christianity was by the Buddhist and not by the Hindu revivalists.
This ethno linguistic primacy in Tamil collective identity is evident in the acceptance of
S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, a Christian, as the leader of the (Tamil) Federal Party (FP), and later
of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and also in the comfortable majorities he won
from a predominantly Hindu electorate from 1947.
At the same time, G.G. Ponnambalam, the veteran leader of the rival Tamil Congress (TC),
although a Hindu, suffered defeat at the hands of Alfred Durayappah, a Christian, in 1965,
and C.X. Martyn a Catholic, in 1970, in Jaffna, another predominantly Hindu electorate. On
the contrary, a non Buddhist Sinhalese rarely contests a Buddhist seat and no Christian has
been the leader of any of the Sinhalese political parties, for Sinhala Buddhist identity is a sine
qua non for leadership of political parties, including even the “socialist” Lanka Sama Samaja
Party (LSSP), the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Communist Party (CP).
An important facet of Tamil collective identity is that, owing to centuries of an insular
linguistic and cultural way of life and a shared historical experience, the Sri Lankan Tamils
possess and assert an identity distinct and separate from both the Tamils of south India and
the Indian Tamils.
They almost consciously cut themselves off from the former because of their desire for a
unified polity in which they felt their future laid. They also prided themselves on speaking
“pure” Tamil, in contrast to Madras (south Indian) Tamil; which is heavily laden with Telugu
and Mayalalam words. With the plantation Tamils, the Sri Lankan Tamils had no connection
whatsoever until recent times, and then it was a tenuous political link at leadership level. This
link led most of the Tamil bourgeois MPs to join in the campaign of the Sinhalese political
class, soon after independence, to deprive working class plantation Tamils of their Sri
Lankan citizenship and franchise.
This orientation of the Sri Lankan Tamils has driven them into such a critical situation that,
even in the face of the gravest threat to their continued survival as a nation, they are
unwilling to compromise with their separateness from the Tamils of mainland India, or to
break with their integration (scarcely more than a century old) with the rest of the island.
Tamil political consciousness has always been innately conservative, and Tamil leadership
has lacked the perspicacity to comprehend, and the dynamism to come to grips with, the
nature and sweep of Sinhalese policies.
Hence the Tamil political leadership has evinced no genuine desire to recreate an
independent Tamil state. And the alternative of seceding, with a view to confederating with
the Tamil Nadu state or federating with the Indian federal union, has not even entered the
realms of political debate.
Tamil society, from the earliest times, was caste based, but not on the lines of the familiar
fourfold division of the Aryan caste system. Caste stratification among the Tamils has a
variation of its own. The “highest” caste are not the priestly Brahmins but the Vellala, who
form about 75% of the Tamils. Caste and class boundaries among the Tamils coincide, and
the Tamil “bourgeoisie” and political elite are the Vellalas. The Karayars, equivalent to the
Sinhalese Karava, are the next in size and importance. There are then several lower castes,
descending in order of importance of the services required by the Vellala in the traditional
society, and affected with increasing degrees of pollution in the eyes of the Vellala. The
lowliest are the “untouchable” Pariah, the scavengers.
Much of the early sharpness of caste differences has now been blunted by mobilisation and
agitation at the political level and changed socioeconomic conditions Rules of endogamy
continue to be rigidly observed, but concepts of purity and pollution, and the hierarchical
ordering of occupations, are a thing of the past. “Untouchability” and its attendant
degradations have virtually ceased to exist, and discrimination in public against lower castes
is banned by the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, 1957.
Traditionally, the Tamils lived by agriculture in the “dry” or “arid” zones less favourably
endowed by nature than the “wet” zones occupied by the Sinhalese. As a result, the Tamils
took advantage of the colonial government’s decision to open the administrative service to
locals proficient in the English language. They studied English in the Christian missionary
colleges established in Jaffna, and, in open competition with the rest of the population,
entered the civil, clerical, technical and professional services in significant numbers.
This avenue of employment gave increased incentive for English education, which the
Tamils came to venerate, and government service became their biggest—indeed their only
major—industry. Fortified with English education, some Tamils emigrated to Malaya and
found employment in the then Federated Malay States government service. At independence
in 1948 Tamils occupied about 30S0 of the positions in the government service and an equal
percentage of places in the University of Ceylon. The attractions of white collar employment
weaned later generations away from agriculture, dependent as it was on the vagaries of the
These made the Tamils virtually a lower middle class community in the island. And, in the
competitive context in which they found themselves they developed the middle class virtues
of hard work, thrift, loyalty and single minded devotion to duty, and the conservative traits of
security, narrow individualism and slow advancement. These developments tied them firmly
to the government and the nerve centre in south Sri Lanka, where the Tamil political leaders,
mainly lawyers, made their money and reputations and had a personal interest in remaining.
Hence their policy of seeking to protect future interests of the Tamils within the existing
political structure. This has today come under fire from the new generation of young Tamils
in Jaffna, who, feeling the brunt of discrimination, deprivation of language rights and the
indignity of living as aliens in their own country, have taken up arms in the struggle for
liberation and for a Separate Tamil state of Eelam in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
2.4 “Indian” Tamils
The so called Indian Tamils are in the main the descendants of the workers imported from the
Tamil areas of south India by the British planters, with the assistance of the colonial
government, from the 1840s, as cheap labour for the large scale coffee and later tea
plantations in the hill country areas. They arrived in gangs of 25 to 100, each under a
kangany (leader) as the recruiting agent. Beginning with about 3,000 in 1839, the arrivals
increased to 77,000 in 1844. With the establishment of tea plantations in the 1880s, more
workers, men and women, arrived. Although in the coffee era they came mainly as migrant
workers for seasonal coffee plucking, with the establishment of tea plantations which
required intensive labour they came as immigrant workers and settled in the island.
In the 1911 census, when they were separately enumerated as Indian Tamils, they totalled
530,983 and outnumbered the Ceylon Tamils (528,024). On arrival, they were hired by the
estates but continued under the kangany, who then became their labour contractor and
supervisor They were paid a pittance of a wage and housed in barrack like ghettos, back to
back 10 by12 feet “line” rooms within the estates. Nearly all of them were poor and illiterate
and often belonged to lower caste groups, accustomed to social inferiority, discrimination
and oppression. In Sri Lanka, they had no contact with the world outside the estate and lived
wholly alienated from the surrounding Sinhalese villagers, separated from them by ethnicity,
language, culture and religion. Their collectivized working life and their presence in alien
surroundings made them hold on to their Indian roots.
To the Sinhalese, they were a slaving Tamil community, and the Sri Lanka Tamils regarded
them with condescension. Their enslaved and miserable plight lowered the esteem of Tamils
in particular, and India and Indians in general, in the eyes of the Sinhalese people. Although
their enterprise and toil opened up the forests, hills and valleys of central Sri Lanka for
coffee, tea, rubber and cocoa, and their cheap labour laid the foundations of the island’s
prosperity based on those exports, in human terms they remained a classic agricultural
proletariat and, as a class, little better off than bonded slaves.
The Indian Tamils do not express their collective identity in terms of language, culture or
religion. It is their class identity that is always in the forefront. From the 1930s, they came to
be organized into trade unions and, by the 1950s, every Indian Tamil was a member of a
union, often allied to the left wing political parties. Their distinctive position as the largest
proletarian force and their unionisation, resulting in class solidarity and militancy, brought
about substantial improvements in their previously exploited working life.
But soon they came under trade unions organized by second generation leaders of their own
community, and their strength came to be dissipated in inter union rivalries and attempts to
bolster the self image of their leaders. The Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC), which in the 1940s
was the representative union and political wing of the Indian Tamil workers, splintered in the
1950s into the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) and the Democratic Workers’ Congress
(DWC), with the leadership of both allied to capitalist interests.
In 1927, the Donoughmore Constitutional Reform Commission estimated that 40% to 50% of
the Indian Tamils could be regarded as permanent residents of Sri Lanka. In 1938, the
Jackson Report on Immigration estimated that 70% to 80% of them were permanently
settled. It is therefore reasonable to assume that at independence in 1948 nearly all of them,
numbering about 900,000 were permanently settled in Sri Lanka. The Indian Tamils voted in
the 1931 and 1935 elections for the colonial State Council and in the 1947 election for the
first parliament, to which power was transferred at independence. In the 1947 election, eight
Indian Tamil members of parliament, of whom six were from the CIC, were elected, and
their strength bolstered the Tamil representation to 24 of the 95 elected members.
But soon after independence, the government of D.S. Senanayake enacted the Ceylon
Citizenship Act, 1948, which made the Indian Tamils non citizens. In the following year, by
the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, they were disfranchised. In this way,
they became not only voteless but also stateless, for Articles 5 and 8 of the Constitution of
India defined citizenship in terms which excluded persons of Indian origin settled outside
2.5 Sri Lanka and the “Indian” Muslims
The origins of the Muslims (also called “Moors”) of Sri Lanka remain obscure. Though the
presence of some Muslims who came as traders to the island can be traced to about the 10th
Century, the Muslims became a settled community only from about the 12th Century. They
came to the island for trade but it is not certain whether they are of Arab or Indian descent
Just before the creation of Muslim representation in the Legislative Council in 1889, there
arose a controversy as to their origin and ethnicity, as the Tamil member had hitherto been
considered their representative, an arrangement in which the Muslims had acquiesced. P.
Ramanathan, the then Tamil member contended that the Muslims originated in south India
and were Tamils who had embraced Islam.35 Professor Vijaya Samaraweera states:
Ramanathan’s thesis caused great consternation among the Muslims. Evidence shows that
there was among them equally a tradition that their ancestors were Tamils of South India
who had been converted to Islam, at the same time as a tradition that they originated from
Arabic migrants to Sri Lanka, but the assertion of the latter tradition took a new immediacy
and importance within the context of the political developments of the 1880s …. Given
Ramanathan’s stature, within and without the administration, it became imperative that his
views should be challenged . . . The critics did not deny that culturally there were points of
similarity between the Muslims and the Tamils this was, to them, the result of the inevitable
process of acculturation of a minority people. The use of Tamil as the every day language of
the Muslims was easily explained; Tamil was the lingua franca of commerce in the region at
the time the Arab migrants reached the ports of south India and Sri Lanka and they adopted it
for obvious reasons of convenience.36
The Muslim spokesmen sought to make out that their ancestors came as traders or were the
Hashemites who left Arabia in the 7th Century on account of persecution by a new ruling
Tamil is the mother tongue of nearly all the Muslims, but they do not seek their collective
identity in language or culture but in their religion Islam. They possess religious unity but
lack a common ethno cultural unity and therefore do not make a distinct ethnic entity. From
early times they have been dispersed all over the island and do not have a defined territory in
the island as their homeland.
An early 20th Century impression of them is as follows:
“They are an enterprising and speculative race [sic] . Their chief occupation is petty trade and
as traders it is difficult to surpass them. They are ubiquitous and active in the metropolis
[Colombo] and in the remotest village.”37
Although they are a predominantly trading community, in the eastern province they are a
large peasant community, constituting about a third of the population of the area, and in
Colombo a large number of them are workers. Since the 1911 census, Muslims born in the
country have been classified as Sri Lankan Muslims and those who acknowledged that they
came for trade, and would return to India, as Indian Muslims. In the 1971 census, Sri Lankan
Muslims numbered 824,291, or 6.5% of the population, and Indian Muslims 29,416, or 0.2%.
The Muslims were persecuted by the Portuguese both for their trading activities and for
religious differences. The Dutch too kept them out of their traditional occupation. As a result,
many Muslims moved to the areas of the Sinhalese Kandyan kingdom. There occurred a
Muslim revival in the last quarter of the 19th Century. It took the form of laymen, learned in
the Koran and in Arabic, challenging the authority of the religious mullahs over doctrinal
matters. These lay activists were of the view that “the community became mullah ridden and
men and women were led into a state of blissful ignorance in the name of religion”.
They criticized the manner in which the mullahs and ulama managed the mosques. By their
constant attacks they confined the religious leaders to a narrow spiritual role. They regarded
themselves essentially as a business and religious community, became inward looking and
did not participate in the rising “nationalist” movement in the country. Their withdrawal was
perhaps also due to the Sinhalese Muslim riots of 1915, when Muslims were subjected to
brutal attacks by rioting Sinhalese in the Kandyan areas. This led them to look to the colonial
government for protection and to collaborate with it. In fact, throughout the whole
constitutional process leading to independence, the Muslim voice was hardly heard.
Even in the post independence period, the Muslims have displayed a Conservative political
profile, never confrontational, but always looking for advantages in the shifting political
landscape. Their principal concern has been to maintain their entrenched role in the
wholesale and retail trade. There have been long standing Muslim “notables” in the
conservative United National Party (UNP) and the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
and they have been getting the best out of both. There have been Muslim ministers in the
cabinets of all governments since 1948, and between 1965 and 1970 there were 12 Muslim
MPs although as a community they were a majority in only six electorates in terms of today’s
politics of personality and charisma, the Muslims are reckoned as important in winning
elections for they are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
2.6 Burghers and Malays
The Burghers and Malays are two small ethnic communities. The Burghers constituted 0.6%
of the population in 1953 but are now 0.3%. They are a relic of the Portuguese and Dutch
occupation of the island. With the British conquest, they adopted English as their language
and are divided between Catholics and those belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church. The
Portuguese Burghers are entirely Catholic and some of them still speak Portuguese Most of
them speak Sinhalese, and the Portuguese Burghers in Jaffna speak Tamil.
Although small in number, the Burghers are not homogeneous. There are divisions between
those of pure European descent, registered by the Dutch Burgher Union, and the rest. During
the British period, they occupied a favoured position and were an influential community,
important in the professions, politics and government, and the mercantile services. But with
the dethronement of English by the Sinhala only Act in 1956, about half the Burgher
population emigrated, mainly to Australia. The 44,000 who remain today, 31,000 of them in
Colombo district, are learning Sinhalese and will eventually become assimilated.
The Malays number 43,000, or 0.3% of the Sri Lanka population. Nearly all of them live in
two areas, one in Slave Island, a municipal ward in Colombo, and the other in Hambantota.
The Malays are regarded as Muslims since their religion is Islam, but they are distinct from
the other Muslims in that they speak the Malay language. They have a separate collective
consciousness and during the process of constitutional reform in the 20th Century Some
Malays asserted a separate identity from the Ceylon Muslims. The Malays possess a high
degree of adaptability, for most of them in Colombo Speak English, Sinhalese and Tamil as
well as Malay.
1. The descriptive phrase “plural society” has been uncritically applied by many social scientists to describe the
ethnic and community structure Al in Sri Lanka. That phrase, as used by J.S. Furnival to describe and interpret
the Burmese and Javanese social patterns of colonial times, is inappropriate to the Sri Lankan situation for it
implies cultural minorities ] in a foreign country held together by the political power of the native dominant
group. Furnival wrote: “In Burma, asin Java, probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of
peoples—European, Chinese, Indian and native. It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not
combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As
individuals they meet, but only in the market place, in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with
different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit; Even in
the economic sphere there is a division of labour along racial lines;” Colonial Policy and Practice, Cambridge,
1948, p. 304. Walter Schwarz, The Tamils of Sri Lanka, Minority Rights Group, London, 1975.
3. The Veddas of Sri Lanka did not originate in the way Dipavamsa makes out. They are the descendants of the
Tamil Yakshas and are racially akin to the Toddars, Kurumbars and Pulindars—the Dravidian jungle tribes of
south India who still live in Nilgris, Quilon and Coromandel regions. Of the Veddas, the Harmsworth
Encyclopaedia states: “The Veddas are the descendants of king Ravana and they are shill living in the jungles of
north eastern provinces of Ceylon with their ancient customs. Both the Toddars of Nilagiri and the Vedda are
Dravidians.” According to Tamil tradition, Ravanan, the Tamil king of Lanka, conquered the Malaya
archipelago and the Tamil people colonized the whole of south Indo China, all of which comprised the Tamil
Yaksha empire. Confirmation for this comes from the Hindu customs and beliefs that are dominant in these
countries. That may also be due to the expansion of the Tamil Chola empire in the I 1th Century, which covered
the whole of south Indo China. Dr G.C. Mendis states: “The Veddas belong to the same racial stock as the pre
Dravidian jungle tribes of South India such as Irulas and the Kurumbars, and are said to be racially connected
with the Toalas of the Celebes, Batin of Sumatra and the Australian aborigines”; Early History of CeyZon, p. 4
A.C. Burnell, in EZements of South Indian Palaeography, states: “South India was the source of the early
civilisation of Java.” He states that Dravidian words occur in Kawi and Javanese and they are apparently all
Tamil, and that the architecture in Java is south Indian; ” . . . we might then assume that the legend referred to is
simply an allegorical allusion to emigration of some Raksas from South India and Ceylon to the northern coast
of Sumatra. This version would appear to receive corroboration from the tradition of Ravana’s conquest in the
Malaya archipelago; and should it prove acceptable, we must conclude that Sumatra was originally a country of
Raksa empire. At all events the legends deserve consideration, as indicating the sources from where Sumatra
received her settlers, or at any rate colonizers”.
4. K.M. de Silva (ed.), Sri Lanka, A Survey, C. Hurst, London, 1977. How far this version constitutes the
official as well as the established history of the island can be seen from the following. In Ceylon, a picturesque
book published by the government of Ceylon (1952, p. 3), it is stated: “About 500 years before the birth of
Christ, immigrants from North India settled in the island and established Sinhalese dynasties of Anurad hapura
and later of Polonnaruwa. The ancient Chronicles of Ceylon tell us that the first immigrants were a band of
Aryan speaking adventurers from North India, under the leadership of Vijaya who is generally regarded as the
founder of the Sinhalese race.” Professor S.U. Kodikara in his Indo Ceylon Relations since Independence,
writes: “According to tradition, the Sinhalese . . . are the descendants of settlers who came from North India in
the 6th Century BC.” Dr I.D.S. Weerawardena, former lecturer in politics in the University, wrote in Ceylon and
Her Citizens: “The Sinhalese . . . came more than 2,000 years ago, probably from the region close to Bengal.
You must have read the story of Vijaya and his 700 men. That story illustrates the fact that our Sinhalese
ancestors came from North India . . . it is difficult to say exactly when the Tamils came to this country. Some
people think that a few Tamils might have been in Ceylon as traders even when the Sinhalese first came, but it
is certain that they came in large numbers in the Tamil invasions which began very early in our history. In the
13th Century they were powerful enough to establish an independent kingdom in the North.”
5. K.M . de Silva (ed .), supra
6. Anagarika Dharmapala, History of an Ancient Civilisation, 1902.
7. Having names of gods as prefixes or suffixes to their names has been a long tradition among the Tamils.
Since the cobra is venerated, many Tamils have names with the prefix “Naga”, such as Nagarajah, Nagaratnam,
Naganathan, Nagamany, etc.
8. Harry Williams, Ceylon, The Pearl of the East, Hale, London, 1950.
9. Zelanicus (pseud.), Ceylon, Between the Orient and Occident, Elek London, 1970.
10. V. Begley, “Proto historical material from Sri Lanka and Indian Contacts”, in K.A.R. Kennedy and G.C.
Possehl (eds.), Ecological Backgrounds of South Asian Pre History, New Orleans, pp. 191 196.
11. P.K. Chanmugam and F.L.W. Jayewardene, “Skeletal Remains from Thirukketiswaram”, in Ceylon Journal
of Science, 1954.
12. S.K. Sitrampalam, in “Anaikoddai Excavations”, in the Tribune, Colombo,3 April 1982.
13. Four ancient temples for Hindu gods were built centuries before the Christian era—Tirukketiswaram,
Muneeswaram, Tirukkoneswaram and Kathirkamam—in the northern, western, eastern and southern directions
of the island, respectively, and Tamil tradition has it that Hindu gods are guarding Lanka on all four sides.
There are references to these temples in the Mahavamsa (Chapter 34).
14. In Vol. 20, p. 567
15 The Hindu deity Ganesha has been enshrined at the entrance to the sacred pipal tree at Anuradhapura from
time immemonal, and Buddhists worship it before going to the inner courtyard of the pipal tree. The pipal tree
is venerated as a branch of the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment in Bodh Gaya.
16. G.C. Mendis, The Early History of Ceylon, Calcutta, 1943, p. 9.
17. S. Paranavitana, quoted in 12 supra.
18 Mendis, so pra, p. 10.
19 See L.S. Deveraja, The Kandyan Kingdom, 1707 1760, Colombo,1972.
20. N.K. Sarkar, The Demography of Ceylon, Colombo, 1957, p. 191. And Sir Ivor Jennings wrote: “The
Sinhalese ‘race’ is as mixed as the English, if not more so. Any difficulties that this mixture might cause is
overcome by the polite fiction that if the father is Sinhalese the offspring are Sinhalese, whatever the mother
may be”; The British Commonwealth of Nations, Hutchinson, 1961, 4th ed., p. 107.
21. These statistics are from The Census of Ceylon, Vol. III, Part I; Department of Census and Statistics,
Colombo, 1960, p. 604.
22. W.S. Karunatillake, “Tamil Influence on the Structure of Sinhalese Language”, a paper presented at the
Fourth International Conference on Tamil Studies, 1974.
23. D.C. Sircar, The Inscriptions of Asoka, p. 9
24. H. Parker, Ancient Ceylon, London, 1909, p. 423.
25. Walpola Rahula, History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anuradhapura Period, Colombo, 1956.
26. Quoted in Race Relations in Sri Lanka, Centre for Society and Religion, Colombo, p. 61.
27. Walpola Rahula, supra, p. 79.
28. G. Obeyesekere, “The Vicissitudes of the Sinhala Buddhist Identity through Time and Change”, in George
de Vos and Lola Romanucci Ross (ads.), Ethnic Identity: Cultural Communities and Change, reprinted in
Michael Roberts (ad.), Collective Identities: Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, 1979, p.
29. John A. Halangoda, Present Politics and the Rights of the Kandyans, Kandy, 1920, also The Rights and
Claims of the Kandyan People, Kandy, n.d. (?1929).
30. The census does not classify people according to castes and therefore no statistics of caste are available.
R.F. Nyrop, Area Hand book for Ceylon, Washington, 1971, contains a list of castes among the Sinhalese, Sri
Lanka Tamils and “Indian” Tamils.
31. Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon, New Brunswick, 1953, p. 99.
32. Obeyesekere, supra, p. 282.
33. Walpola Rahula, supra, p. 79.
34. Ibn Battuta, H.A.R. Gibb, London, 1929.
35. See Hansard, Legislative Council, 1885, Vol. II, p. 234; also Ramanathan, “The Ethnology of the ‘Moors’ of
Ceylon”, in Journal of Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), Vol. X.
36. Vijaya Samaraweera, in “The Muslim Revivalist Movement, 1880 1915” in Michael Roberts (ed.), supra,
pp. 243 276.
37. P. Arunachalam, in “Population”, in Arnold Wright (comp.), Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon,
3. Colonial Rule and Sinhalese-Tamil


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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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