Tracing the Sri Lanka-Kerala link

Tracing the Sri Lanka-Kerala link

Links between Kerala and Sri Lanka go back far into history and have been very strong, writes PK Balachandran.

Mar 23, 2006

When one looks at Sri Lanka’s historical links with India, the focus is almost exclusively on those with Tamil Nadu and places in Gangetic North India in which the Buddha lived and preached.

If Kerala comes into the picture at all, it is only when the subject is the landscape, dress or food, where the similarity is indeed striking.

But there is more to the Kerala-Sri Lanka link than this, says the renowned Sri Lankan social anthropologist, Dr Gananath Obeysekere, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at Princeton University.

Links between Kerala and Sri Lanka go back very far into history, and have been exceptionally strong, he says.

At least a part of what is thought to have come from Tamil Nadu may have come from Kerala because in ancient times, the Tamil country comprised what is now Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

According to historians, the Chera (or Kerala) and the Pandya kings were powerful influences in the Tamil country in South India from pre-Christian times to about the 3rd century AD.

There had been Tamil influence on Sri Lanka from the earliest times. This was partly because the distance between the Tamil country in South India and Sri Lanka was only 30 kms from the nearest points.

But the influence became pronounced from the 10th century AD onwards.

Vestiges of the relationship between the Tamil country in South India and Sri Lanka, can be seen to this day in Sri Lankan society and culture, be it Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, says Dr Obeysekere in his monograph entitled: The Matrilineal East Coast, Circa 1968: Nostalgia and Post-nostalgia in our troubled time (International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, 2004).

He looks at the Sri Lanka-Kerala link through the “Pattini” cult and the matrilineal system, two institutions, which are, or were, widespread in Sri Lanka.

In the Pattini cult, the deity Kannagi is worshipped as the Mother Goddess, and in the matrilineal system, inheritance and residential patterns follow the female line.

Both institutions came from the Chera country, as Kerala was known in ancient times.

The Pattini cult is found throughout Sinhala society in South Sri Lanka and in the Tamil areas of Batticaloa and Amparai on the South-Eastern coast.

As for the matrilineal system, it is the norm in Tamil and Muslim societies in the East.

According to Dr Obeysekere, the matrilineal system existed in the Sinhala-speaking South also, but was supplanted by the patrilineal system.

Pattini cult

The story of Pattini or Kannagi is found in the 3rd century AD Tamil classic “Silapadikaram” located in the Chera or Kerala country.

In Silapadikaram, the heroine, Kannagi, in a rage over the wrongful execution of her innocent husband, Kovalan, plucked out her breast and threw it into the city of Madurai which then burst into flames and was destroyed.

Kannagi’s fidelity towards her husband and her fight for justice elevated her to the position of an “Amman” or Goddess, and a powerful one at that. 

Vanchi, which the Silapadikaram mentions as the ancient capital of the Cheras, was then a popular centre for trade with West Asia.

Its trade was in the hands of people who followed heterodox religions like Buddhism and Jainism.

Silapadikaram, a Jain classic, was written by a Jain ascetic, Ilango Adigal.

Dr Obeysekere says that it was the Tamil-speaking Kerala Buddhist traders and other immigrants from the Vanchi area, who brought the Pattini cult to Sri Lanka.

He points out that according to Sri Lankan mythology, the Pattini cult was founded by King Seraman (the King of Kerala).

He also notes that in Sri Lanka, the cult was given high status when two trader families of Kerala origin, namely, the Mehenavara and the Alagakonara (the Alagakones of today are probably their descendants), began to dominate the Western and Central parts of the island from the middle of the 14th century onwards.

And as per an inscription dated 1344, the Alagakonaras had come from Vanchi around the year 1100.

The Pattini cult spread in Sri Lanka with the increase in the power of the Alagakonaras and the Mehenevaras who had started of as court officials.

The Mehenavaras were influential in Dadigama and Gampola (near Kandy), while the Alagakonaras established themselves in Raigama and controlled the ports of Beruwela, Devundara and Weligama, on the Southern and South Western coasts.

According to Ibn Batuta, in 1344, the Alagakonaras controlled the area now covered by the Western, Sabaragamuwa and Southern Provinces, with the White Elephant as the symbol of their power.

Because the two leading families from Kerala were Buddhists, they elevated Pattini to a Bodhisattva (a Buddha in the making).

It is noteworthy that Pattini is the only female Bodhisattva in the Sri Lankan Buddhist pantheon. She was also made a guardian deity of Sri Lanka.

Pattini was formally recognised as a Goddess in Sri Lanka during the reign of Parakramabahu VI, in the 15th century. Interestingly, the king was related to the Mehenavara family.

Dr Obeysekere says that the Sinhala songs related to the Pattini cult were originally in Tamil.

This is acknowledged in the songs used in the water-cutting ritual, which is part of the Pattini cult in Matale district.

One of the verses recited in that ritual says: “Ilango, the Pundit, composed these verses in Tamil.”

The reference is to Ilango Adigal, the author of “Silapadikaram”.

Spread of Pattini cult to Eastern coast

Although basically a Tamil cult, Pattini worship is not found in all parts of Tamil-speaking Sri Lanka.

It is a peculiarity of the Tamils of the Eastern seaboard from Batticaloa district downwards, Dr Obeysekere observes.

Among the Northern Tamils (of Wanni and Jaffna), Pillayar or Ganesa is the most popular God.

This is so among the present-day Tamils of Tamil Nadu also. There is only one Kannagi temple in India and that is not on Tamil Nadu, but in Kerala.

The Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, which wanted to revive the Tamils’ non-Sanskritic culture, did make Kannagi an icon. But Kannagi worship never took off in Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan Eastern coast’s peculiarity is attributed to its ancient links with Kerala.

A strong Kerala influence is evident even today among all the peoples of the Batticaloa and Amparai districts, whether they are Tamils or Muslims.

Their social formations and their Tamil speech betray a Kerala origin.

A comparison of social institutions between Kerala and southeast Sri Lanka shows that the Tamils and Muslims of Batticaloa and Amparai districts had migrated from Northern Kerala, says Dr Obeysekere.

Matrilineal descent (tracing one’s descent through the mother) and the matrilineal clan, are the dominant modes of social organization among the   Hindus and Muslims of North Kerala.

This is so among the Tamils and Muslims of Eastern Sri Lanka too, where the matrilineal clans are called the “kudi”.

The matrilineal groups in South Eastern Sri Lanka do not have the corporate identity that they have among the matrilineal Nayars of Central Kerala, for example.

There is no equivalent of the Nayar corporate family called the “Tharavad” here in Sri Lanka.

But matrilineal structures manifest themselves in various important contexts, both ritual and secular, Dr Obeysekere says.

He notes that Batticaloa Tamil and Muslim women get a two-thirds share of the familial estate as dowry on marriage, showing the pre-eminent place of women in these societies.

The other institution that the matrilineal Keralites and the Eastern Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims share is “uxorilocal” residence. Under this system, the man lives in his wife’s residence.

In contrast, there is no matrilineal system among the Indian Tamils and North Sri Lankan Tamils.

The British did call the Northern Sri Lankan Tamils “Malabars”, meaning that they were from Malabar in North Kerala. But according to Dr Obeysekere, this is a case of mistaken identity.

Matrilineal descent related to worship

Matrilineal descent groups come into play in worship in Eastern Sri Lanka.

In temples and mosques, particular matrilineal clans elect the chief, called the Vannakar in the case of the Hindu temples, and Maraikkar in the case of mosques.

Among the Hindus, the clans have particular roles in the rituals connected with Pattini worship.

Both Tamils and Sinhalas play rough games during the Pattini pujas and follow them up with a cooling ritual to portray the high tension in the story of Kannagi and the subsequent easing of the tension, which becomes necessary to allow life to go on.

Since the Goddess cults in South India are associated with curing of diseases and resistance to pestilence, the Pattini cult in Sri Lanka is also associated with these.

Because of this, Muslims and Sinhalas also participate in the “cooling” rituals of the Pattini cult, Dr Obeysekere says.

Close relations between East and South Sri Lanka

Close relations between the Tamil-speaking East Sri Lanka and the Sinhala-speaking South Sri Lanka, were another factor, which enabled the two sides to share cultural traits including the Pattini cult.

“The East Coast was connected by several trade routes running into the (Sinhala) Kandyan kingdom, mostly from Batticaloa and Trincomalee with the hub of the trade being Mahiyangana, also called Bintanna, which according to Dutch sources, was one of the most prosperous ports of Asia,” says Dr Obeysekere. 

Eastern Muslim traders supplied Kandyans with salt and dried fish. The Sinhala elite of the Bintanna-Aluthnuwara area had marriage ties with the Mukkuvars, the dominant Tamil caste in the East.

According to Dr Obeysekere, there was a political dimension to this too. From the middle of the 15th century onwards, the Mukkuvar chiefs of the East had accepted the formal suzerainty of the Kandyan Sinhala kingdom.

He quotes the Eastern Tamil scholar, Rex Casinader, to say that in the folk play “Kandy Raja Nadagam”, which is performed to this day, the Mukkuvars had bemoaned the fall of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, which led to the establishment of British rule in Sri Lanka.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

About editor 3017 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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