Since the 13th century, the Tamil speaking people of the North-East were largely isolated from the Sinhala people of the south and separated by thick jungle. For centuries the two linguistic communities coexisted on the island peacefully without recourse to major conflict:
“After the 13th century with the establishment of a Tamil kingdom in the north of the island, there was in fact a geographical separation of the Sinhalese from the Tamils. The buffer between them was the dry zone forests of the Vanni. The Sinhalese had by now, abandoned the north-central plains and migrated to the south-west quarter of the island. . . .Until the first quarter of the twentieth century a vast forest belt separated the Sinhalese from the Tamils of the north and the east.” (De Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions, p. 14)1
This is further corroborated by Indrapala:
“A complete bifurcation of the island into Tamil-speaking and Sinhala-speaking areas would have taken place only after 1200, especially with the fall of Polonnaruva and the establishment of a new centre of Sinhalese power in the southwest…the retreat of the Sinhalese ensured the consolidation of Tamil habitation in the north, northwest and northeast as well as the assimilation of all non-Tamil elements within that region.
As Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva were forever abandoned, a thick belt of jungle separated the Tamil north from the Sinhala south, and what is more, provided a buffer against any further political interruptions in the form of invasions from south Indian empires.” (Indrapala, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity. 2005, P275-277) 2.
Fig. 1: The jungle distribution that helped to separate the two linguistic regions.
Recent scientific and historical studies have indicated that both the Tamils and Sinhalese are largely descended from the Mesolithic people who inhabited all parts of the island in the prehistoric period (over 3000 years ago)2, 3,12. By the dawn of the 13th century, the two ethnic identities had begun their political and geographical separation. For a full account of this fascinating journey Indrapala’s groundbreaking publication “The Evolution of an Ethnic identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka C.300 B.C.E to C. 1200 CE”2 is essential reading.
Traditional homeland of Tamil speaking people
The word ‘homeland’ has no universally agreed definition among academics. However, it has been noted by one scholar that the aforementioned term is likely to be a translation of a term widely used in Tamil writings:
Paramparamaka (or ‘murai muraiyaka) tamil peca makkal val piratecankal, which means literally: ‘Regions where Tamil-speaking people have traditionally (or from generation to generation) lived’4.
The historical records demonstrate that the ancestral lands of the Tamil speaking people formed a contiguous region in the North-East, one that had deep cultural associations with Tamil speakers since time immemorial.
It is a widely accepted fact that northern Sri Lanka, especially the Jaffna peninsula, had been a predominantly Tamil territory for centuries. It is this same area that formed the core of the Tamil kingdom in medieval times.
Fig 2: This is the map of the Jaffna Kingdom in present-day Sri Lanka at its greatest extent and just before its capitulation to the Portuguese Empire.
This view is corroborated by medieval Sinhala literature. The Sinhalese Nampota dated in its present form to the 14th century CE suggests that the whole of the Tamil kingdom, including parts of the modern Trincomalee district, was recognised as a Tamil region by the name Demala-pattanama (Tamil city)5. In this work, a number of villages that are now situated in the Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee districts are mentioned as places in Demala-pattanama.
Census information from 1881-2012 has consistently shown that every division in the Northern Province bar one has had an overwhelming Tamil speaking majority.
Eastern Province (Trincomalee, Batticaloa & Amparai districts)
In 1911 the Eastern province was over 95% Tamil speaking, although a Sinhala minority predominated in some inner hinterland areas. The eastern littoral itself was almost entirely Tamil speaking and formed a contiguous Tamil region with the north via contact between Trincomalee and Mullaitivu districts. It is this North-East region that forms the territorial basis of the Tamil homeland.
Trincomalee district is noted for the ancient Koneswaram temple from which it derives its name, Thirukonamalai (திருகோணமலை). This exact name is first attested to in a 10th century Tamil inscription found in Nilaveli in the district2. The temple is also mentioned in the hymns of Tamil Saiva saints such as Sampanthan in the 7th century. Indeed it was venerated by both Tamil and Sinhala kings alike, most notably the 11th century monarch Gajabahu II who was clearly a staunch devotee of Siva:
“He performed Brahmanical sacrifices, worshipped at the Saiva shrine of Konesvaram in Trincomalee and spent his last days in the Brahmana settlement at Kantalay.” (Indrapala 2005)2
The census of 1827 suggests that the Tamil speaking population of Trincomalee exceeded over 18,000, whilst there were only 250 Buddhists at the time6. From 1827-1921 the Sinhala population of the district did not exceed 5% of the total population6-10.
According to the censuses of 1911 & 1921 the only division of Trincomalee district that had a Sinhala majority was Kaddukulam West9, 10. Here in this sparsely populated dry zone area of the interior were small Kandyan villages with a Sinhala population of 69710. The boundary between these traditional Sinhala settlements in Kaddakulam West and the traditional Tamil & Muslim settlements of the coast in Kaddakulam East (with a Tamil speaking population of 3132)10 can be clearly visualised in the maps below.
The remaining divisions in Trincomalee District including Thambalakamam, Trincomalee Town & Kottiyar pattu were over 98% Tamil speaking in 1911 (The Tamil speaking population exceeded over 23,000 in these divisions)10.
It is apparent from these colonial documents that Trincomalee district, excluding Kaddukulam West, was an almost entirely Tamil-speaking region in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Prior to 1961 the Batticaloa district also included what is now known as Amparai district. The Tamil speaking coastal zones of both these districts are referred to as Mattakkalappu (மட்டக்களப்பு):
“This region has a distinct geographical and cultural identity in the minds of its Tamil-speaking inhabitants. They refer to it as Mattakkallappu (“muddy lagoon”) which was rendered as Batticaloa by colonial writers. Part of the self-conscious identity of the region is its distinctive Tamil dialect, in which colloquial pronunciation corresponds with the written form of the language to a greater extent than in Jaffna or in Tamilnadu.”11
McGilvray’s ‘Crucible of Conflict’ contains the most up to date historical study of Batticaloa. It surmises that the “various ethnohistorical traditions and early reports” from the region positively identify the Tamils and Muslims “as having shared the Batticaloa region from pre-colonial times.” 11
Indeed, the modern day Batticaloa district has been almost entirely Tamil speaking since the early 19th century. According to the censuses of 1911 & 1921, the entire district was over 98% Tamil speaking9-10. This demographic pattern has continued to the present era:
Ethnic distribution of Batticaloa district (Census 2007).
In contrast, the Amparai district has had significant Sinhala settlements in the interior forested areas at the foot of the Bintenne hills (although very sparsely populated). In 1911 the Sinhala population in these hinterland areas was just under 4000, whereas the total population of Amparai district was 7% Sinhala10.
However, the densely populated coastal areas of the district were inhabited almost entirely by Tamil speaking people (over 58,000 in 1911)10 as highlighted by the shaded yellow region in the map below.
This demographic pattern had largely persisted from pre-colonial times:
“When the Portuguese and Dutch empires encircled Sri Lanka in the 1500s and 1600s, the easternmost region of the island, centred on the present-day town of Batticaloa, was part of the feudal territories of the Kingdom of Kandy, although local-level politics was firmly in the hands of sub-regional chiefs of the dominant Tamil landowning caste, the Mukkuvars. The inhabitants of the region were largely Tamil-speaking, except for some Sinhala and Veddah villages to the west and south” (McGilvray 2007)11
Amparai district 1911: The areas shaded in yellow are the Tamil speaking areas. This region at the time was over 99% Tamil speaking (population >58,000). The unshaded areas of the district are predominantly Sinhala speaking (population <4000).
The above evidence demonstrates that for centuries there has existed a contiguous Tamil region in the North-East of the island, which in the modern era is regarded by Tamil speakers as their traditional homeland.
The North-East in 1911.
The region highlighted in red is over 99% Tamil speaking.
Source: The census of Ceylon, 1911, Colombo
1. KM Da Silva, Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi ethnic societies: Sri Lanka 1880-1985, 1986
2. K. Indrapala, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka C.300 B.C.E to C. 1200 CE, Vijitha Yapa, 2005
3. Kshatriya GK, Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations, Human Biology, 1995
4. Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam, The Concept of a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka – its meaning and development, , Journal of South Asian Studies, 19901.
5. Nampota, M.D. Gunasena & Co., Colombo 1955, pp. 5-6
6. Nicholas Bergman, Return of the population of the island of Ceylon, Colombo 1827
7. The census of Ceylon, Colombo 1888
8. The census of Ceylon, 1901 (Colombo 1902) pp 82-83
9. Census publications, Ceylon 1921, Vol IV, (Colombo, 1926) p239
10. The census of Ceylon, 1911, Colombo 1922, p35
11. McGilvray, Crucible of Conflict, Tamil and Muslim society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, 2007
12. Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations, Journal of Human Genetics (2014).