Early Inhabitants and the Rulers of the Island

Early Inhabitants and the Rulers of the Island

By P. Sivakumar

November 8, 2017

During the early historic period (6th century BC to 3rd century AD), Lanka/Ilankai (as first mentioned in the Ramayana) was a part of South India separated by a shallow sea and was only a walking distance before the sea levels rose.  Even today, one of the ancient bridges that were linking South India to Sri Lanka can be seen in the NASA shuttle images.  During that period, irrespective of whether they were Yakshas, Nagas, or any others, all these tribes were Saivaite Dravidians (devotees of Lord Siva, Saivism is a sect of Hinduism/Brahmanism prevalent in Sri Lanka before Buddhism).  The Naga tribe not only lived in both Sri Lanka and South India, but they were also moving back and forth between Sri Lanka and South India. 

All the ancient rulers of Sri Lanka before the arrival of Buddhism were also Saivites (followers of Saiva Siddhantam).  The Pali chronicles leave us in no doubt that the worship of Siva was prevalent in Anuradhapura and elsewhere on the island.  The numerous occurrences of the personal name Siva in the Pali chronicles and in the early Brahmi inscriptions also support this.  As per the Ramayana, even the Yaksha king Ravana was believed to be a Dravidian chieftain and a strong devotee of Lord Siva.Brahmi script

Brahmi script

During the early period (before Buddhism), the Island of Sri Lanka was not a Dhamma Deepa of Buddha but a Siva Bhoomi (Land of Siva).  As confirmed by Dr. Paul E. Pieris, in the ‘five corners’ of the island of Lanka, there were five ancient historical Ishwaram temples of Lord Siva (Nuguleswaram, Munneswaram, Koneswaram, Tondeswaram, and Katheeswaram).  Sri Pada/Adam’s Peak was originally known as Sivanolipatha Malai (sacred footprint of Siva).  Even today, if they dig/excavate deep in any part of Sri Lanka, the archaeology department could find statues of Lord Siva. 

Some of those statues that were already found are kept in museums, while many got disappeared/lost.  There was NO Buddhism in Sri Lanka until Emperor Asoka’s missionary monks led by Mahinda Thero converted the Saivaite Dravidian/Tamil King Muta Siva’s second son Tissa (brother of Maha Siva) to Buddhism in the 2nd century BC (Tissa/Tisa is the Buddhist name, his real Saiva name is not known.  However, Thisan is a Sangam age Tamil name found in the Keezhadi excavation.  For accepting Buddhism, Emperor Asoka (who assumed the title Devanampiya Piyadasi which means “Beloved-of-the-Gods”) gave king Tissa a similar title, Devanampiya.

The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity - The Tamils of Sri Lanka

Following King Devanampiya Tissa, a large number of Saivaite Dravidian tribes on the island embraced Asoka’s Buddhism, Aryanised/Prakritised their speech, learned to write using Asoka’s Bhrami script, adopted the Lion symbol (the Indian Lion which represents the accomplishment of Buddha) and the Dhamma Chakra (also called the Asoka Chakra), accepted the Asoka Buddhist culture and implemented Asoka’s technology to build Stupas, Chaityas, Viharas, Sangharama, and so on.  The authors of the early Brahmi inscriptions in the island, which are in the Prakrit language, were almost certainly Buddhist monks (even the Buddhist Sangha in Tamil Nadu had used the Prakrit/Pali language in preference to Tamil in their writings). 

These inscriptions mainly record the donation of caves to the Buddhist Sangha.  The language of these inscriptions should not be assumed to be that of the common people.  Even though the written language started only after the invention of the Brahmi script, Tamil was a spoken language thousands of years before it was put to writing and is one of the ancient living languages in the world.  The word ‘Tamil’ occurs in Sangam poems/literature dating back to 300 BC to denote a language and an ethnic group.  About the same period, its derivate ‘Damila’ in the Prakrit language occurs in an early inscription from Amaravati and in the Pali chronicles of Sri Lanka as a section of the island’s population. (Refer Dr K. IndrapalaThe Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka, 2005, page 4).

However, after his conversion to Buddhism, Devanampiya Tissa’s proclamation that he was the Maharajah of Sri Lanka (with Asoka’s blessing and support) and his efforts to force the people of the country to accept Buddhism was rejected by the Vanni Chieftains (early historic Vanni Chieftaincies encompassed Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Puttalam and Kathiragama hinterlands). 

They were strong devotees of Lord Siva who refused to accept Devanampiya Tissa as their overlord and resisted his effort to impose Buddhism on them.  Saivaite Dravidian rivalry against Buddhism began in 177 BC during the reign of his youngest brother Sura Tissa.  Two Saivaite Tamils, Sena and Kuttaka (Damila horse merchant’s sons, none of the Pali chronicles describe them as invaders) defeated Sura Tissa in battle and conquered Anuradhapura and ruled it for 22 years.  Anuradhapura was under Saivaite Tamil threat for the next 149 years ending in 88 BC. Eight Saivaite Tamil kings ruled Anuradhapura for a total of 82 years during that period.  The Mahavamsa does not call any of them invaders (other than Ellala).

The history scholars who studied/analyzed the Pali chronicles and the historical records in Tamil Nadu for any reference to any invasion (either Chola or Pandyan) during the same period failed to find any evidence.  They feel that these rulers were native Saivaite Dravidian/Tamil Vanni chieftains who rebelled against the imposition of Buddhism.  However, the chieftain who ruled Jaffna/Nagadeepa accepted  Devanampiya Tissa’s overlordship and converted to Buddhism. 

Even though the Mahavamsa says that Ellala was a Chola Prince, the folk drama popular among the native Tamils ‘Ellalan Koothu’ says that he was the son of Sena, one of the first native Tamil rulers of Anuradhapura.  Even Dutugemunu had to conquer not just one Tamil Saivaite king (Ellala) but 32 Tamil chieftains around the Anuradhapura Kingdom.  Pandara Vanniyan was known as one of the last native Saivaite Tamil Vanni chieftains who challenged British rule.  The Mahavamsa by trying to discredit those native Saivaite Tamils who rebelled against imposing Buddhism (by portraying them as foreign invaders) did only the opposite, it confirmed their existence as Tamil rulers/chieftains from ancient times.

During the 5th century A.D, Ven. Mahanama thero and a group of scholarly Buddhist monks of the Mahavihara in Anuradapura, observing two groups of people, the Tamil speaking Saivaites and their converts (Buddhists) speaking the new language (Prakrit), wrote the Pali chronicles with the motive of projecting the Theravada Buddhists as a separate ethnic group, ‘the Sinhalese’ (who will protect the Buddhist dharma in the island Dammadvipa/Sinhaladvipa – the ‘chosen land’ of Buddha where Theravada Buddhism will prevail for 5000 years).  The Tamil Saivaites who did not convert to Buddhism but were posing a threat to Buddhism were projected as ‘enemies or invaders’.  That is how the ‘Sinhalese’ originated and became the ‘guardians of Buddhism’ and the non-Buddhist (Saivaite Tamils) became ‘invaders’.  The Mahavamsa goes to the extent of openly declaring that killing is a virtue in defence of Buddhism in its description of the victory of the Buddhist prince Dutthagamini over the Saivaite king Ellala.

By trying to interpret the invasion theory that was mentioned in the Mahavamsa, the European (colonial) orientalist scholars (English/German) who translated the Mahavamsa in the 20th century AD made the antagonism even worse by generalizing all the Saivaite Tamil rulers as ‘invaders’.  European historical writings were based on an uncritical acceptance of the Pali chronicles and they were only interested in their Aryan cousins in this part of the world.  They did not make any attempt to study/analyze or translate the old Tamil texts.  Today the myth has become the truth and the Sinhalese believe it as gospel.  They are brainwashed right from birth to believe the myth that the whole of Sri Lanka is a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist country’ and the Tamils are ‘invaders’ who do not belong to Sri Lanka.

The first Tamil Nadu (Chola) invasion took place during the rule of Vankanasika Tissa (111 AD-114 AD) when Karikala Cholan invaded the Anuradhapura kingdom and took away a large number (12,000) of captives to work as slaves on the irrigation project he was building on the Kaveri River in South India.  While Mahanama Thero (King Dhatusena’s uncle and author of Mahavamsa) was whipping up Theravada Buddhist nationalism by portraying the Tamils as invaders and foreigners and portraying Dhatusena’s struggle to liberate Anuradhapura from 27 years of Tamil rulers as a heroic act,.

Dhatusena’s favourite son Moggallan fled to Tamil Nadu and returned with a huge Tamil army and defeated his half-Dravidian/Pallavastep-brother Kassapa in 491 AD.  The first Chola rule on the island of Sri Lanka began only in 993 AD when Raja Raja Cholan sent his Chola army, which conquered the Anuradhapura Kingdom.  After Raja Raja Cholan, his son Rajendra Cholan continued by adding the island as one of the provinces of the Chola Empire known as “Mummudi-Chola-Mandalam”.  

Sri Lanka remained a Tamil Nadu (Chola) colony under the rule of Raja Raja Cholan and his son Rajendra Cholan for eight decades (993AD –1077AD).  It was Rajendra Cholan who later abandoned Anuradhapura and established the Poḷonnaruwa Kingdom. 

On the other hand, the arch-enemies of the Cholas were the Pandyans/Pandu of Madhura in Tamil Nadu who were the close allies of the Royal house of Sri Lanka from the beginning of Sri Lanka’s history.  It was the Pandyans/Pandu kings who ruled Sri Lanka most of the time.  They were not invaders but invitees.  Even in the Vijay story, the Pali chronicle says, Ling Vijaya and his men took wives from the Pandyan/Pandu Capital “Dakshina Madura” which means southern Madura.  From King Pandu Vasudeva to Parakrma Bahu, most of the Saivaite, as well as Buddhist Kings and their Queens of Sri Lanka, were from the Tamil Pandya dynasty.  The Deepavamsa calls King Pandu Vasudeva(504-474 BC) Pandu Vasa (a Pali or Prakrit equivalent of Pandya Vasa meaning one from the Pandyan country i.e., a Pandya by his nationality). 

It was the tradition of the early Buddhist writers in Sri Lanka to twist the Dravidian/Tamil names (of kings and places) sometimes out of recognition in transforming them into Pali or Prakrit (later Sinhala) forms.  After the death of Pandu Vasudeva (Pandu Vasa) his eldest son Abhaya (Prakritised form of Apayan in Tamil means ‘he who averts fear’)became the lawful king.  Abhaya’s son, King Panduka Abhaya aka Apaya Pandyan received help from his ancestral city of Madhura in planning the city of Anuradhapura. 

King Panduka Abhaya gave his son a Saivaite Tamil name Muta Siva (elder Siva) and King Muta Siva’s son was Devanampiya Tissa who promoted Emperor Asoka’s Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka.  The Mahavamsa calls them either North Indians (maybe because Buddhism came from there) or invaders from Tamil Nadu.  If you study/analyse the Pali chronicles, most of the BAHU kings of Sri Lanka have Pandyan connections or rather they are all of the Pandyan descent.  Whenever the Pandyan/Bahu kings of Sri Lanka such as King Parakramabahu were waging a war against the invading Cholas, it was a Pandya – Chola war which present-day historians have misinterpreted as a Sinhala – Tamil war.

Today the names of the old Pandyan kings (such as Kula Sekara, Chandra Sekara, Vira Wickrama, Parakrama and so on) are adopted by the Sinhalese (not Tamils) and they have succeeded in misrepresenting the Pandyan/Tamil foundations of Sri Lankan civilization as Sinhalese.  Most of the rulers of the island of Sri Lanka were either native Tamils/Vanni chieftains, Dravidians tribes (Nagas), or Pandyans/Pandu or Cholas or at least half Tamil.  Even the Pali chronicles do not call any of them Sinhala Kings. 

By quoting from Lord Valentia’s Travels and from an article of Joinville which was published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon, Mudaliyar Simon Cassie Chitty wrote in 1838, “The Singhalese, though forming a distinct nation, and differing in their religion, language and manners from Tamils, had no kings of their own race, but of the latter, and according to Lord Valentia and Joinville ‘a Singhalese cannot be a king of Ceylon; that is every person born of a Singhalese father or mother is excluded from the throne.” 

Even though the Saivaite Tamils were living in many parts of the country such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa (a capital built by the Cholas), Padaviya, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Tissamaharama (where Tamil Brahmi potsherd inscriptions were found) and so on, it was only after the 12th century CE that the island became more divided politically and geographically between the two languages/religions with the Jaffna kingdom being established in the North East, closer to the Tamil mainland.


Further reading:

  1. Sinhalisation of the North-East
  2. Mahaweli & Demographic Change
  3. The Legacy of Indian Migration to European Colonies
About editor 3017 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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