Did Sinhalese or Tamils appear first in Sri Lanka?

Did Sinhalese or Tamils appear first in Sri Lanka?

Gouri Shanker, 10+ years in historical linguistics.- Dravidian languages

This question has two dimensions, which language is native to Sri Lanka, Tamil or Sinhala? Next, who came first to Sri Lanka, Sinhalese or Tamils?

Today Tamil language in Sri Lanka is spoken in many regional dialects. These dialects and the Sinhala language have evolved only in Sri Lanka, hence both Tamil and Sinhala dialects are native to Sri Lanka.

Next, whose ancestors came first? Tamils or Sinhalese? The earliest inhabitants were neither Indo-Aryan nor Tamils. The island was supposedly inhabited by mythical Yakshas and Nagas when Vijaya and his followers arrived by boat in 483 BCE (Law, 1947, p50: Geiger, 1908). Now, there is archaeological evidence of human settlements in Sri Lanka before the Indo-Aryan settlers came.

Source: Ibbankatuwa Ancient Burial Site | AmazingLanka.com

However, there is no conclusive evidence of Tamil presence in Sri Lanka before the Indo-Aryan arrival. There are no such references in the early Tamil literature. Moreover the earliest inscriptions found in the island are Prakrit.

“The earliest (600-500 BC) inscriptions on pottery are in Indo-Aryan Prakrit. So far none of them are in Dravidian. It appears to corroborate the [prevailing] view that Indo-Aryan was pre-dominant from at least as early as 500 BC in Sri Lanka” (Deraniyagala, 1996).

Prior to the arrival of Indo-Aryan settlers, there is a good evidence of human habitation. The remains of Balangoda Man have been dated to 38,000 years before present. Prehistory of Sri Lanka 1 : the beginning of a long journey

Skeleton of Balangoda Man. Source: Chandima, B. A. Prehistory of Sri Lanka 1 : the beginning of a long journey

In addition, there is archaeological evidence of early Iron-Age settlements.

According to Deraniyagala (1996), “Archaeological evidence of early settlement, dating to ca. 1000-800 BC, is found at Anuradhapura. It was already a town (cf. Allchin 1989: 3). By 700–500 BCE, the settlement exceeded 50 ha in area.”

Next, who were these early settlers? Their ethnicity and the languages remain unknown because they didn’t leave any inscriptions. They could be Dravidians, Indo-Aryans or Austro-Asiatic people. Some have speculated that they could be the hill people of South India like the Pazhaiyars (Palaiyars).

Source: Restoration of the Great Silk Road possible

According to Deraniyagala (1996), “the protohistoric Sri Lanka has attracted many traders and settlers from India and outside due to its favourable location for long-distance trade between Southeast Asia and West Asia. It has plenty of rain forests, pearls, copper, cinnamon and other spices. There is even some evidence of early trading with pharaonic Egypt”.

List of References

Allchin, F. R. (1989). City and state formation in Early Historic South Asia. South Asian Studies 5 (pp. 1-16).

Chandima, B. A. Prehistory of Sri Lanka 1 : the beginning of a long journey

Deraniyagala, S. U. (1996). Director-General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka. Proceedings of the xiii Congress, Forli’-Italia. PRE- AND PROTOHISTORIC SETTLEMENT IN SRI LANKA

Geiger, W. (Ed.) (1908). Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon (Vol. 63). H. Frowde.

Law, B. C. (1947). On the chronicles of Ceylon. Asian Educational Services (p. 50).

Did Sinhalese or Tamils appear first in Sri Lanka?

Siva E. Loganathan, Interested in Indology

I would not say Tamils initially hated the Sinhalese. Tamil elites, usually the English educated upper caste, really loved Colombo (Sinhala area) as it was the economic and political centre of Ceylon and wanted to be part of that. Tamil leaders and writers were really for a Ceylonese national identity.

Even today the Tamils who immigrated to Malaysia and Singapore when they were British colonies to work as civil servants proudly call themselves “Ceylonese”.

One such Ceylonese Tamil leader was the prominent Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who was described as “the greatest Ceylonese of all times” by Sinhala leaders. He was respected by the Sinhalese as he was responsible for the release of the Sinhalese leaders who had been arrested by the British rulers following the 1915 Ceylonese riots.

Sir Ponnambalam wrote,

“Take the Sinhala Nation. I have served the race all my life. In my twenty eighth year I entered the Legislative Council and never once have I thought myself to be a member of the Tamil Community only – I supported the Sinhalese interest and every other interest and treated every subject with the same sympathy and desire to do the best for all the communities. I knew through and through the men and women of the Sinhalese communities of all classes. They have all the characteristic of a great people they are decidedly considerate and peaceful.”[1]

Some Sinhala nationalists allege that Tamils had been separatists even before independence, therefore, LTTE’s fight for Eelam wasn’t because of Sinhala racism and violence but separatism is what Tamils had always wanted from the beginning. 

If there were separatist sentiments among Tamils prior to independence as Sinhalese nationalists allege, it was by no means unanimous.
Consider the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC) for example. It was one of the earliest pre-independence organisation to agitate for full independence from Britain and advocate a broader Ceylonese nationalism under a unitary state.

“Long before independence, the JYC led the campaign for the use of national languages in education and in governance. The JYC succeeded in getting virtually all the leading schools in Jaffna to teach Tamil and Sinhala as compulsory subjects at the secondary level. As J.E. Jayasuriya has noted, ‘At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala, the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders’”[2]

So where did it all go wrong?

I’d start with the father of modern Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, Anagarika Dharmapala, a 19th-century Buddhist revivalist. He was what we would today call a bigot or a racist. He derided all things non-Sinhalese and non-Buddhist. For him, Sri Lanka was a Sinhala-Buddhist land only, which he claimed was threatened and corrupted by outsiders. Here’s one of his hate speeches against a minority group:

“What the German is to the Britisher, the Mohammedan [Muslims] is to Sinhalese. He is an alien to the Sinhalese by religion, race and language … to the Sinhalese without Buddhism, death is preferable. The British officials may shoot, hang, quarter, imprison or do anything to the Sinhalese, but there will always be bad blood between the Moors and the Sinhalese. The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insults of the alien. The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor people.”[3]

It was on this Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist platform first laid out by Dharmapala that post-independence Sinhala politicians competed against each other to win over their masses. The Buddhist Sangha (clergy)’s involvement in politics only made things worse. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike for example who became prime minister in 1956 had campaigned with the promise of ‘Sinhala Only’ policy as opposed to linguistic parity for Tamil, using the backing of the Sangha to bolster his credentials and portraying the issue as a life and death struggle for the Sinhala race. When he later tried to compromise with Tamil leaders he was assassinated by a nationalist Buddhist monk for supposedly betraying his race.

From thereon, Sinhala political factions competing for power used Tamils as “whipping horses”. This is what a professor of political science Neil DeVotta who has written extensively about the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict calls “ethnic outbidding” which ‘refers to the auction-like process wherein politicians create platforms and programmes to ‘outbid’ their opponents on the anti-minority stance adopted…’[4]

These politicians didn’t have to care for Tamils as they were the numerical minority. Ceylon became Sri Lanka and continued down the road of ethnic majoritarianism politics, marginalising the minority Tamils. In 1972 the Republican Constitution was introduced, giving Buddhism “the foremost place” and removed safeguards for minorities which is considered illegal by some observers.

An eminent Sinhalese historian K. M. de Silva has remarked on the political development since independence this way:

“…. the concept of a multi-racial polity ceased to be viable any longer. The emphasis on the sense of uniqueness of the Sinhalese past and the focus on Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhalese and the country in which Buddhism stood forth in all its pristine purity carried an emotional appeal compared with which a multi-racial polity was a meaningless abstraction. Moreover the abandonment of the concept of a multi-racial polity was justified by laying stress on a democratic sanction deriving its validity from the clear numerical superiority of the Sinhalese and Buddhists.”[5]

Nationalist manipulation of education didn’t help either:

“A review of teaching materials used in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s (Nissan 1996) found that Sinhalese textbooks were scattered with images of Tamils as the historical enemies of the Sinhalese while celebrating ethnic heroes who had vanquished Tamils in ethnic wars. Ignoring historical facts, the textbooks tended to portray Sinhalese Buddhists as the only true Sri Lankans with Tamils, Muslims and Christians seen as non-indigenous and extraneous to Sri Lankan history (Bush and Saltarelli 2000: 13). There was no attempt either in texts used by the Sinhalese or by the Tamils to use positive illustrations of the other groups. The texts were culturally inflammatory and laid the intellectual foundations for social conflict and civil war.”[6]

Sinhala hatred of Tamils predates the formation of LTTE in the late 70s while Tamil hatred of the Sinhalese follows after anti-Tamil violence and discrimination which continue with impunity to this day.

Torture of and sexual violence against Tamils in post-war Sri Lanka
– http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/sto…

Militarisation and colonisation of Tamil lands

Ethnic tensions continue today and will continue tomorrow despite the change of leaders because Sinhala politicians can’t succeed without upholding commitments to certain Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist principles which are hostile to the interests of Tamil people:

“A common perception among external observers is that the problem in Sri Lanka lies with ultra-nationalist parties like JHU, while the two main political parties—the UNP and SLFP—represent the moderate face of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. This is not even close to the truth. No such thing as a moderate version of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism exists. The core commitments of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism include retaining the unitary state and providing Buddhism a primary place in the political affairs of the country. These commitments have been the core of the agenda of both the UNP and SLFP since their inception.

These commitments are fundamentally against the Tamil position that seeks self-determination, autonomy and a secular Sri Lanka. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is deeply entrenched within the democratic politics of the majority community, and no Sinhalese leader will risk distancing himself or herself from the fulfillment of these two obligations. Thus, it can be said with a high degree of certainty that Sirisena would not dare to step away from these commitments either. In fact, he and his coalition are well aware of their difficulties with the Sinhala voters and are unlikely to do anything that could jeopardise their political future.”[7]


[1] The greatest Ceylonese Leader was Sir Ponambalam Ramanathan

[2] Pathways of Dissent

[3] Muslim riots and communal rumblings

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/pub…

[5] Racism in Sri Lanka

[6] Schooling as Violence

[7] Why Sirisena’s Victory is Not a Victory for Sri Lanka’s Tamils


About editor 3047 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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