The Tamil Kingdom in Jaffna

Second International Tamil Conference Seminar
January 1968, Madras, Tamil Nadu

The Tamil Kingdom in Jaffna
Early Beginnings to the Court of the Ariya Chakravartis


[see also Ariya Chakravartis of Tamil Eelam – M.D.Raghavan]

“…Nagadipa was the original name of the Islands of the Jaffna Peninsula. Ptolemy’s map shows that a number of towns in Ceylon in the pre-Christian era had Tamil names….A large number of Sangam words spoken among the illiterate villagers of Jaffna again support our Sangam connections. Finds at Ponparippu also show that Tamils had lived not only in Jaffna, but in the vicinity of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and other interior parts of Ceylon. (The urn burials found in these parts are identical with the urn burials found in Adichanallur and other places of South India.)…The Purananuru states that the body of a king who did not die in battle was placed on a tharappu and cut by a sword before being cremated.(15) This was a custom among the Tamils during that period. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai, in his work entitled Tamilar Panapdu states that it is a Tamil custom to place the body of a king or a warrior who did not die in battle, on a tharappu and cut into pieces before being cremated…”

Early Beginnings
Evidence of early settlements of Tamils
Masudi’s Visit in 912 A.D.
 The Court of the Ariya Chakravartis
Appendix I – Commentary by Dr. S.A. Imam of the University of Ceylon on the extract from Masudi’s Mural al Dhahab I, 6 1-2,  Paris Edition.
Appendix II – Translation of an extract from Masudi’s Muruj al Dhahab I, 61-2, Paris Edition)

Early Beginnings

During pre-historic times Ceylon is said to have been occupied by the Vedas, Nagas and Yakkas. (1) The Mahavamsa also refers to Lord Buddha’s visit to Nagadipa (the Island of Nainathivu) in order to settle a dispute regarding a throne between two Naga Kings. This legend is again supported by the Manimekhalai. It is ‘difficult to find out what the language of the Nagas was at that time. But it is clear that during the Sangam period the Nagas of Ceylon were well versed in Tamil.

Nagadipa was the original name of the Islands of the Jaffna Peninsula. Ptolemy’s map shows that a number of towns in Ceylon in the pre-Christian era had Tamil names. Megasthenes called Ceylon Taprobane but Pericles says that Taprobane was replaced by Palaesi­mundu, (2) perhaps a corruption of Palayanakar. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana speak of the Nagas of Jaffna. The Mahavamsa says that Yakkas and Nagas occupied Ceylon before the advent of Vijaya.

Some Tamil Sangam poets were Nagas from Jaffna. The original language of the Nagas was perhaps Elu, a word from which Ceylon got the name ‘Eelam’. But before the Ariyanisation of Ceylon, Tamil was perhaps the language of the Nagas and was spoken in Ceylon.(3) Among the Sangam poets mentioned is Illattup Putantevanar, who composed some verses in Kuruntokai, Akananuru and Narrinai. The Mahavamsa states that in the 6th century B.C. there existed Naga strongholds at Nagadipa under Mahodarai, the Naga King. (4)Among the Sangam works, a few personalities who were referred to as ‘chieftains’ appear to have come from Jaffna. For example Elini (5) and Pittankorran (6)about whom verses appear in the Purananuru, appear to have come from Kudiraimalai, now identified with Kantherodai in Jaffna.

Evidence of early settlements of Tamils

A large number of Sangam words spoken among the illiterate villagers of Jaffna again support our Sangam connections. Finds at Ponparippu also show that Tamils had lived not only in Jaffna, but in the vicinity of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and other interior parts of Ceylon. (The urn burials found in these parts are identical with the urn burials found in Adichanallur and other places of South India.) The Mahavamsa also refers to a clan known as Lumbakarnars who were ruling north of Ceylon in the first century A.D. Recent excavations at Kantharodai Buddhist stupas in which Sivaganams were found by Dr. Godakumbara, suggests that Tamils who were Saivites also had worshipped in this shrine.

Chroniclers state that King Vasabha who succeeded Subbha and ruled from Anuradhapura in 66 A.D. belonged to this clan. The Culavamsa also refers to the existence of the Lambakarna clan in the Pandya country. There is also evidence of a close connection between the Malavas of the Pandya country and the Lambakarna clan in Ceylon. Isigaraya, mentioned in the Gold Plate Inscriptions found at Vallipuram (dated 2nd century A.D.),(7) was perhaps a Malava chieftain with the title of raya, a suffix which many Tamil chieftains took. (As Mr. Pillai rightly observes, the northern part of Ceylon was the land of the Nagas in the centuries preceding and succeeding the Christian era.(8)After a period of interregnum a Tamil Kingdom started in Jaffna when Ukkure Singham established a kingdom.(9))

The reference in the Yalpana Vypavamalai to Pandi Malavan who went to India during the period when Jaffna had no settled kingdom and invited a Chola prince, again shows the influence of the Vella community, and that Jaffna, after a period of anarchy was again ruled by the Chola prince. When the whole of Ceylon came under the sway of Tamil kings, as for example during the reign of Elara, Sena and Cuttika (75 B.C. to 55 B.C.); and after the invasion of Pandu and five others (43 A.D. to 62 A.D.) the rest of Ceylon came under the Tamil sway. But their conquest lasted only a short period and the Sinhalese kings were able to regain their supremacy. As Codrington says, from the 5th century A.D. the Sinhalese kings were harassed by the Pandyans and the Cholas. This made the Sinhalese kings shift their seat of power from Anuradhapura to other places.The question as to when an independent Tamil Kingdom was established in Jaffna is a matter of controversy.

For a few centuries Jaffna was ruled by Sinhalese kings. The Tamil armies brought by one of the claimants to the throne of Anuradhapura in the seventh century, were the only soldiers who fought in wars. In the medieval period, the Sinhalese, as cultivators, appear never to have been a warlike people. The Sinhalese militia therefore was of no great military value.(10) The mercenaries consisting chiefly of Dravidians, were a deciding factor in wars.(11) King Manabharna took refuge in the North (Uttaradesa). For some time he was in Kanchi, the capital of Pallava country. Later he is said to have regained the throne of Anuradhapura. Towards the end of the 8th century, it is stated that the Tamil chiefs were able to assert their independence for some time. The Culavamaa states that they refused to pay tributes to Mahinda till he subdued them. The Yalpwza Vypavamalai refers to the Pallava influence. It speaks of some arrangement made by the Pallava kings, referred to as Thondaman, to get salt exported from the Jaffna kingdom and to deepen the lagoon for this purpose. The existence of Thondamannaru, a canal in Jaffna supports this tradition.

In the 9th century, when the Pandya king Sri Maru Sri Vallabha invaded Ceylon, the Tamils of the North rallied round him and helped him to defeat the army of Sena I. This led to the seizure of Anuradhapura by the Pandyan forces. During the 10th century the Cholas invaded the island frequently and used the northern ports such as Manthotta and Urathurai (Kayts) as bases for their operations. Place names like Chembianpattu, Valarvaikoon Pallam, point to the fact that the Cholas had captured these places.

In one of the inscriptions of Rajadhiraja, it is stated that four kings of Ceylon lost their crowns at the hands of Rajadhiraja. The names of the kings are Vikramabahu, Veerasalamegha, Sri Mallabha and Madavarajah. The last of these kings has been identified as the King of Jaffna. According to K. K. Pillai, he was an adventurous member of the Rashtrakuta dynasty who gained control over some part of Ceylon between 1051 A.D. and 1052 A.D. Rasanayaga Mudaliyar, citing Indian inscriptions states that the Chola kings decapitated three Jaffna kings.(12)

As against this convincing evidence, some students of history appear to think that the Tamils settled down only in the twelfth century in Jaffna.(13) A new discovery throws great light on the kingdom of Jaffna in the eighth century. Masudi, the great Mohammedan traveller, reached the Port of Jaffna in 912 A.D. and witnessed the funeral of a Hindu king. (This is described in the appendix; the writer is indebted to Dr. S. A. Imam for this information).(14)

Masudi’s Visit in 912 A.D.

Masudi states that the King was placed on a low chariot and while it was being drawn, a woman swept the ground and threw dust on the hair of the dead king, exclaiming the futility of life and extolling the worship of God. Before the body was put on the funeral pyre, it was smeared with sandalwood and cut into four pieces with a sword. The Purananuru states that the body of a king who did not die in battle was placed on a tharappu and cut by a sword before being cremated.(15) This was a custom among the Tamils during that period.

  1. Vaiyapuri Pillai, in his work entitled Tamilar Panapdu states that it is a Tamil custom to place the body of a king or a warrior who did not die in battle, on a tharappu and cut into pieces before being cremated. Masudi had definitely witnessed the funeral of a Tamil king. The reference by the woman who threw dust at the dead king to the “Eternal who is alive” was the reference to the Supreme Creator. This period was followed by the religious revival brought about by the Tamil saints. Therefore the ceremony referred to is definitely that of a Tamil king, since Buddhists do not believe in a supreme deity.

The Court of the Ariya Chakravartis

The Jaffna Kingdom flourished between the 8th and the 16th centuries. This period is a memorable one not only for the Tamils of Ceylon but also to all who are interested in Tamil culture. After the demise of the Chera, Chola and Pandya Kingdoms, there was no true Tamil Kingdom in South India excepting in Northern Ceylon.

Although the early kings of Jaffna did not style themselves Ariya Chakravartis, by the 12th century this name came into use. There have been many surmises as to how the kings came to style themselves as Ariya Chakravartis. Some are of the view that they were the Eastern Gangas, others have taken the view that they had descended from Shatriyas or the Gan~gavamsa and the Brahmin families in Rames­waram. Still others think that the first Ariya Chakravarti was a Pandya general who asserted sovereignty in Ceylon when the Pandyan kingdom was on the verge of collapse.(16)

Be that as it may, this was a glorious period of Tamil culture during which the Tamil language and the various arts developed. Fortunately for posterity, the literature written during that period contain glimpses from which the pattern of the Ariya Chakravartis, court can be recon­structed. Attempts are made in this article to deal with kingship, the king’s education, splendour of the Ariya Chakravartis’ court, the coronation ceremony, the administration of justice and the King’s Council.

The Ariya Chakravartis claimed divine origin from the Sun and the Moon. They claimed to be the Lords of the Universe and assumed throne names, such as Pararajasingham, Segarajasingham or ‘lions of the Universe ‘. In keeping with their theory of divine origin, the king was considered as comparable to Skanda whose residence was the mountain abode of Skanda.(17) His feet have been described as lotus feet comparable to the feet of Gods and Goddesses.(18)

Although the Ariya Chakravarti was king of only a part of Ceylon, and on occasions assumed suzerainty over the whole Island, he was also the ruler of Sethu. This is vouched by a number of references to him as Sethukavalar.(19) Numerous coins have been found with Sethu as their seal. During certain periods the Ariya Chakravarti assumed suzerainty over the whole Island. This was particularly so during the reign of Marthandan. This fact is supported both by the literature of this period and also from the accounts of foreign travellers.(20)

Kings Education

The Ariya Chakravarti was given a sound education to befit his royal status.(21) He is said to be versed in the three branches of the Tamil language(iyal, icai, nhaatakam).(22) Thus the astrological work, Segarajasingham, is compared to the sacred thread which the Ariya Chakravarti, who is well versed in the three branches of Tamil, wore. He is referred to as thilakam of the learned people.(23) He was taught all the princely arts and the military sciences, which it was customary for royal princes to learn during that period. Thus, the Vypavamalai states that during the exile of Kanagasooriya Singa Ariyan (1440-1450 A.D.) when Senpaka­perumal (referred to in the Sinhalese Chronicles as Sappumal Kumaraya) conquered Jaffna, Kanagasooriya’s sons, Pararajasegeram and Segaraja­segeram, were taken care of by the royal family at Thirukovil in India and they were taught military sciences.

King was Patron of the Tamil Sangam

The king maintained the Tamil Sangam and rewarded poets and writers. He is referred to as the patron of the Tamil Sangam.(24) He was not only learned in Tamil but also in many foreign languages. Ibn Battuta, the famous Muslim traveller, states that he was able to speak in Persian to the Ariya Chakravarti when he met him.(25)

The Splendour of the Ariya Chakravarti’s Court

Portuguese historians state that the throne of the Ariya Chakravarti was adorned with ivory and gold and embellished with the rarest and choicest of precious stones.’(26) The crown was conical in shape and studded with resplendent gems. The king wore a necklace of gold studded with priceless gems. His armlets were made of gold and pre­cious stones. To ascend the throne there was a long flight of steps inlaid with ivory. When the king sat in durbar, he sat with his queen who did not wear a crown.(27) The bull flag waved majestically in the air and the royal couple sat under a white umbrella.(28)

The Coronation Ceremony

The coronation ceremony was accompanied with great pomp and splendour as was characteristic of that period. A graphic description of this ceremony is given in the Kailasa Malai. At the durbar the king was stated on his golden throne which was studded with pearls of priceless value. He was decked in resplendent diamonds and shining jewels. On one arm he held the ritual sword, the sign of regal authority, and on the other the mace, which was the symbol of power. He was surrounded by his ministers, nobility and his people, when he received anointment at the hands of the purohit who showered blessings on him. Whether the verses of the Thiruvempaavai was sung, as was customary in some of the eastern countries, is not clear.

The Administrative System

During the minority of the king a regent was often appointed. Thus, the Vypavamalai states that when Pararajasegaram died leaving his infant son who was three years of age, Arasakesari, a cousin of the king was appointed as regent to take charge of the kingdom during the King’s minority. There are many references to Ministers in the literature of this period. But the exact content and scope of the advisory council is not clear. The Vellalas and the Madaipallis formed the nobility. Feudal tenure similar to the one prevalent during the Chola period prevailed.

Governors of Provinces

On the Chola pattern, the king had many chiefs who were in charge of districts. Thus reference is made to a chief of Omantai, a village about 60 miles from Jaffna town who received at the hands of the king, not only gold, but also the right to rule the district.(29) Pararajasegeram, the brother of the Ariya Chakravarti was given the right to rule certain villages.’(30) Lands were given on feudal tenures to chiefs. The word ‘udayar’ with reference to the chief headman indicates that he had lands given by the king.

Emblem of the Ariya Chakravartis

The flag of the Ariya Chakravarti bore the emblem of the recumbent bull with a crescent and the sun. This emblem is found not only on their flag but also on their coins. The literature of this period makes several references to the bull flag.(31)

Courts of Justice

The king administered justice in the audience hail. The bull flag of the Ariya Chakravarti fluttered from the top of the audience hall.(32) There were other courts as well. In the other courts the Thesawalamai and the Dharmasastras were administered. It is likely that Brahmins, who were well versed in the Dharmasastras, presided over such courts. The Panchayats, consisting of the village elders, also administered justice.

The Laws Administered

The customary laws known as the Thesawalamai, were administered in the courts. Ceylon preserves the pure form of customary laws of the Tamils which has become obsolete in South India. The Thesawalamai consists of a peculiar blend of the customary laws of the  Malabar Tamils who came during an earlier period, and the customary laws of the Tamils of the eastern part of South India who came during the period of the Ariya Chakravartis.(33) Apart from the Thesawalamai, there were other customary laws prevalent among the Tamils who lived in Ceylon. These customary laws were collected by Sir Alexander Johnstone, the second Chief Justice of Ceylon at the turn of the 19th century. (34) Works on Dharmasastras were referred to and applied in the administration of justice. Thus the Yalpana Vypavamalai refers to a work on Dharmasastras, known as Brahaspati and Manuneethi as legal texts referred to during the time of the Ariya Chakravartis.(35)

The Ariya Chakravartis were the patrons of Hinduism and Tamil culture. Thus the Kailasa Malai refers to the great interest that the Ariya Chakravartis took in selecting and sending a Brahmin from Kasi learned in the Vedas and the teacher called Gangatharan, to Jaffna.


  1. 1. Geiger, Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. XI. p. 515f.
    2. K. K. Pillai, History of South India and Ceylon, p. 4.
    3. Ibid., p. 18.
    4. Mahavamsa, Chapter 1, vv. 58-60.
    5. PuRam, 158, lines 8 and 9.
    6. PuRam, 168, line 14.
    7. Epigraphia Zeylanica
    8. K. K. Pillai, History of South India and Ceylon. p. 21.
    9. Ibid., p. 124.
    10. Geiger, Culture of Ceylon in Medieval Times, (1960), p. 153.
    11. Ibid., pp. 152, 153.
    12. Rasanayaga Mudaliar, Ancient Jaffna, p. 278f.
    13. See K. Indrapala, Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon, (unpublished Thesis available at the University of Ceylon Library).
    14. See Appendix II and commentary by Dr. S. A. Imam in Appendix I.
    15. S.Vaiyapuri Pillai, Tamilar Panpatu,  p. 52
    16.See Rasanayaga MudaliarHistory of Ancient Jaffna, Chap. VII; Paranavitharana, article on the Ariya Chakravarti Kingdom in North Ceylon, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch (New Series), Vol. VII (1961), p. 119; Natesan,“Early Kingdoms in Jaffna”, Parameswara College Magazine; Nilakanta Sastri, History of South India, 3rd ed., p. 216.
    17.Segarajasingham (Astrological work) Sirappurayam, verse 11.
    18. Arasakesary of Nallur, Raguvamsa Padalam (ed. Ponnambalampiliai), v. 223.
    19.Segarajasingham (Astrological work), v. 5; p. 40.
    20. Segarajasegaramalai, Satasatram No.8; Bell’s Kegalle Inscription No. 6; “lbn Battuta’s Travels “, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, Extra No. 39 (1882). See also Dr S. C. Paul, “The Overlordship of Ceylon during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth Centuries “, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Ceylon Branch, Vol. XXVIII, p. 83.
    21. Segarajasegara Malai p. 40, v. 5.
    22.He honoured Tamil poets and gave them gold; see Tamizh naavalar carithai, v. 243.
    23. Dakshina Sirrappurayam; Kailasa Puranam by Pandita Rajah (ed. P.P. Vaitilingam Desigar).
    24.Dakshina Kailasa Puranam
    25. “Ibn Battuta’s Travels “,  R. A. S., Ceylon Branch, Extra No. 39 (1882); Travels of Ibn Battuta, trans. Samuel Lee, pp. 183f.
    26. See A. C. Perera, History of Ceylon, p. 135; Rebeiro, History of Ceylon.
    27. See the description of the Ariya Chakravartis’ Court by Ibn Battuta in .J. R. A. S., Ceylon Branch, Extra No. 39.
    28. In particular the Madappali Vellalar were the King’s relations.
    29. Segarajasegara Sirappurayam, v. 9.
    30. See Kailasa Malai
    31. Dakshina Kailayapuranam Sirappurayam; Kailaya Malai, 5.
    32. Raguvamsa, Padalam XIII, v. 107.
    33. H. W. Tambiah, Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Jaffna. 1951 ed., pp. 19f.
    34. Ibid., p.20; H. W. Tambiah, Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Ceylon, 1954 ed. p4
    35. Yalpana Vypavamalai, p. 25.

Appendix I

(Commentary by Dr. S.A. Imam of the University of Ceylon on the extract from Masudi’s Mural al Dhahab I, 6 1-2, (Paris Edition).

A1-Masudi, the celebrated Arab historian and traveller of Bagdad had visited South India in the early tenth century A.D. on his way to Ceylon. In his Mural-al­Dhahab or “Golden Meadows” which is an abridgment of his Universal History, he tells us about the manners, customs and religion of the inhabitants of South India; the pomp and grandeur of the Court of the Maharajah India; that the people of India (meaning thereby South India) according to their Code, had strictly forbidden their kings to drink wine. It is not, says lie, motivated by religious strings but because of the fact that when a ruler drinks he is not deemed suitable to conduct the affairs of the State correctly. If it is proved, he goes on, that the King did indulge in alcoholism, abdication was imperative. These Indians are known for their appreciable knowledge of politics.

The Arabs during the period, called Java-al Zabij, which to my mind is an Arabized form of Sri Vija. the well known South Indian ruler under whose suzerainty the Island was ruled.

The author of the article “ Ceylon “in Encyclopaedia Judica has quoted al Masudi in connection with the conquest of Sind by the children of “ Harm” (Hematics) who had settled down there, in remote antiquity.

Al Masudi seems to have visited Ceylon twice on his way to China. His first visit to Ceylon may perhaps be fixed to 912 A.D. or 913. Practically every Arab traveller who happened to touch the North Western Coast of Ceylon made it a point to pay homage to the sacred footprint of Adam. Time permitting, they penetrated into the interior as well. Al Idirisi, who has made pointed reference to Ceylon in his monumen­tal geographical work, has mentioned names of prominent towns including that of the northern region of the Island. But al Masudi appears to be more interested in landscape, medicinal herbs and the culture of the people. The extract taken from his Muraj probably refers to the Northern Province of Ceylon as pre-medieval Sinhalese. So far as I could ascertain from the authorities, the Sinhalese never cut the bodies of the dead kings into four before cremating them. It is just possible that al Masudi who had participated in the Royal funeral had seen the corpse cutting ceremony in a non­Sinhalese area. I am inclined to think therefore that this peculiar ritual connected with the dead must have been a Tamil custom which must have been abandoned in later centuries, since Ibn Battuta, who was in Ceylon in 1342 A.D. and who was a very shrewd observer who was deeply interested in non-Muslim culture, does not make any reference to this body cutting ceremony which was prevalent in the days of Al­Masudi.

Appendix II

(Translation of an extract from Masudi’s Muruj al Dhahab I, 61-2, Paris edition).

“I saw in the land of Serañdib – this is an Island out of the Islands of the Ocean – that when their King died he was placed on a low chariot having many small wheels meant for that purpose so that his hair trailed on the ground. There was a woman with a broom throwing dust over his head shouting, ‘Oh people, this was your King yesterday, who ruled you and whose authority and command were current among you. Now you see what has happened to him alter abandoning this world. The Angel of Death has seized his soul. It is He the Alive, the Eternal who is immortal! Therefore do not yield to the illusion of life after him (the King)’, and such utterances which mean an invitation to fear of God and asceticism in this World. He is taken round all the streets of the city; thereafter he is dismembered into four parts. The sandalwood, camphor and all sorts of perfume have already been prepared for him. Then he is cremated and his ashes are scattered in the wind. The majority of the people of India do likewise to their kings and nobles with a set purpose they speak of and thus they prepare a road for the next life.”

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