Para Dhemalā

Charles Sarvan

Charles-Sarvan-150x150“…an alien Tamil speaking group with little or no history in the island” (Sunday Island, Colombo. 25 January, 2004, p. 7),  … quoted in my essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’.

I don’t remember hearing Sinhala spoken in the Jaffna of my childhood, but I’m over 75 and no longer trust my memory: perhaps, Sinhala was spoken here and there.    Be that as it may, it’s not relevant to what follows. We shifted to Colombo when I was 14, and I was almost immediately sent to St Thomas’, Gurutalawa (see, “Recollections of Gurutalawa”, Sunday Island, 5 July 2009). The context in which the word para was used at boarding-school, in Colombo and elsewhere; the accompanying tone of voice and facial expression, all indicated contempt, dismissal and rejection. Para was linked to Parayā (low caste) and that sufficed to convey meaning to me. The first time this particular linguistic stone was thrown at me was at Gurutalawa.

It was reading Michael Roberts several years ago that brought me to another, and far more significant, meaning of para, namely, “foreign”. I think even those who recently have expressed disappointment with him will admit that few can match the reading and knowledge Michael has on Sri Lankan history and anthropology. (I feel free to use the familiar “Michael”. I met him even before we both entered the University of Peradeniya in 1957.)

In his Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism, Michael writes that the term Para has multiple meanings including pita (foreign). Pita and para become synonymous, he comments. The conventional sense of the word throughout the middle period and into the twentieth century has been that of “other,” “alien” or “enemy.” Though disparaging, especially in modern times, para was not necessarily so in the classical literature and could refer to “others” in a neutral sense. Nevertheless, the context of usage in the Cûlavamsa of the early middle period, where it refers to Māgha and his destructive activities, and in the hatan kavi of the seventeenth century and onwards, where it refers to the Portuguese (who are often called parangi), points to a pejorative import in such politicised expressions.

In his Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers (my sincere thanks to Mr Nanda Godage for taking the trouble to post a copy to me) Michael Roberts writes: “The word para has a lineage that goes back to medieval times and carries numerous meanings in literary texts… In more recent centuries, however, the common meanings have been (i) enemy or saturā and (ii) other or others, in the sense of “foreigner”… para can be prefixed, as an adjective in expression of contempt, to hambayā (Moor), demalā (Tamil) and lansiyā” (page 10).

If the foreign is seen as a threat to Sinhalese purity of “race” and culture; to innate and intrinsic Sinhalese righteousness and stability, then it helps to explain not only contempt and hatred towards those seen as foreign (in effect, everyone who is non-Sinhalese) but the extreme violence used to preserve what is believed to be pristine and pure and, therefore, sacred. Michael: the Sinhalese have a conviction that they are a chosen people, and this leads to an emphasis on purity (page 14). The distinction is between the “Sinhala” and the “a-Sinhala”, the non-Sinhala (page 19). Evil, and the disorder and fragmentation it brings, is not within but comes from outside, from what is foreign, para (page 20).

By the way, something Michael notes ( page 20) shows yet again that “race” can be a far stronger emotion and force than religion: “Sinhala Catholics… participated actively in the populist or the sponsored violence against Tamils in 1977, 1981 and 1983” – I may add, irrespective of whether these Tamil victims were Christian or not.

Finally, as Paul Caspersz ironically commented (see, Sarvan, Sunday Leader, 14 February 2010), if one insists on the label “Indian Tamils”, then one should also speak of “Indian Sinhalese”: polluted or pure, the roots are the same.


Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, disparagement, historical interpretation, life stories, nationalism, politIcal discourse, racist thinking, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

6 responses to “Para Dhemalā

  1. Andy Sergie

    It is sad to see some of the honourable old words being corrupted down the line to mean something pugnacious and insalubrious. The word “para” in my mind came to us from ancient Indian languages like Sanskrit and Pali. In Hindi the words means foreign. In a very popular romantic song the word is used as “paradshie” to mean foreign and what is conveyed there in that she cannot marry her lover as he is foreign but as it happens they finally tie the knot. This is not a problem akin to Sinhalese or Tamil , but to all languages. I have been trying to hit it on the head about Thuppahi and say it is not what Michael means. The word again originated from India (or was it old Persia?) and is Topash meaning of descendants of mixed marriages. Dobash meaning two languages was applied to people who could speak two languages and naturally they could translate from one to another and vice versa. Those of mixed marriages knew two tounges, that of the father and the mother thus the translators were known as dobash topash. Here in this country it took another meaning as the translators of yore did deceptive things by translating incorrectly on purpose and unfortunately they were labeled as Topash that corrupted to Thupphi. It may interest the readers to know a high rank during colonial times was Thuppahi Mudaliyars and there are Singhalese people with the name Thuppahige in their names. People get offended when these words are thrown at them because they only know what it means at present (insalubrious meaning) and not what it meant originally (the salubrious meaning).

  2. chandre Dharmawardana

    The word “paradise” also may have come from the meaning that it is outside the earth and hell. So indeed, “para” is not always used negatively. Foreign things are often cherished over local products.

    But when it comes to people, foreigners (paraya) are definitely regarded with suspicion, fear and indeed contempt. In Hindu society and they are even regarded as polluting by their very presence. The Ponnambalam Ramanathan (or Arunachalam ?) refused to have dinner with Emmerson Tennent (a paraya) !

    We see this hostility to foreigners in the Bible, where you trust only people of your tribe, and regard others as hostile and dangerous. You don’t go outside to help them. The Old Testament is full of exhortations to even kill outsiders. Samaritans normally don’t help non-Samaritans. So the rare good Samaritan is canonical.

    I think the British labeled the Tamils into two groups. The Malabar Tamils (they came earlier, to work in the Tobacco plantations in the North), and the Indian Tamils, who came later, to work in the Coffee and tea plantations. The indigenous Tamils did not want to be lumped with the Malabar Tamils, and that usage has largely disappeared. Also, most “Malabar Tamils” have migrated upwards in social level. But the name “Indian Tamil” has persisted because of citizenship issues, and also due to the alienation of the indigenous Tamils from the estate Tamils because of caste (They are parayas in the eyes of the upper caste Tamils; recall Mr. Peri Sundar in the Hatton electorate of the state council and their verbal caste battles ). The Indian tamils have not acieved adequate upward social migration to shed their labels..

    There are, I think, no Indian Sinhalese because many Indians groups (like kauravas) when assimilated have become sinhala – possibly with a specific caste label. The “Sinhala Identity” is less about race than about its singular purpose of “safeguarding Theravada Buddhism”. Thus the nayakkar Dravidian Kings were welcome and accepted as the Kandyan Kings as long as they observed Budhhism, at least in public.
    They could even speak Andra Demala in the courts, but their offical work has to be in Sinhala. Thus the Sinhalese unifying principle is, I think, this belief in a historical destiny written down in many “vamsa chronicles”, Rajaavalia and other literary works down the ages.

    Also, you have names like Nanayakkar(a), Ponnamperuma etc., which are clear Dravidian names well accepted by the Sinhalese. Similarly, we have names like Balasingham, Samararatnam etc, among Tamils and having non-Tamil parts in the sense that you never see such combinations in south India. These names are those of Sinhalese who have become Tamilzed, for instance, when Sankilli threw them out of Jaffna and they remained in the Vanni. The strong Hindu caste orthodoxy may regard such assimilated people as low-caste (e.g., kovia caste), but no longer paraya in the worst sense of full outcaste.

    In fact in normal sinhalese ‘paraya is surely a mild word of abuse compared to other possible words of abuse.

    In western society too, anti-immigrant insults often involve the ‘paraya’ concept.

    • Manthri

      This is absolutely disgraceful to identify people by words and create more disharmony than harmony. The people of our country has suffered enough and high time this sorting out of who is a true Lankan and who is foreign by mere words. Let people live and enjoy their lives than digging out dirt please.

    On Para Demilla, Parai Demella and Paradesi
    Para means “outsider” and by implication one who does not belong. It is the antonym of Swadesi. It is also used to refer to wanderers and sometimes to wandering sadhus, mendicants

    When Para is prefixed to Demella it bcomes in Sinhala version “foreigner” “outsider”, one who doesn’t beloing. So that when one of the Rajapases referred to Thondaman Jr as “Para Damilla” it could be charitably interpreted as “You Foreigner” or damn foreigner I suppose because in the eyes of a true native like Rajapakse, Thondaman, descendant of recent immigrants, was truly Para-desi, a wandering Tamil with no fixed abode, a late comer as opposed to those who came with Vijaya!
    For Tamil ears however many words have a vowel ending and “Para” is heard as “Parai” which refers to the “lowest” caste in Tamil land and is taken as both an ethnic insult and castist categorization. The sting is in its ambiguity. In fact in ordinary discourse among Tamils the appellation “paraya” is used to insult someone whatever his caste may be – as parayp payal using the hierarchical idiom to demean somebody.
    In my Peradeniya days I remember a quarrel between two members of Ramanathan Hall:
    A:“Oh, you really are a low bugger’ (Goigama)
    B:Now, don’t bring caste into this” (Karawa)
    I don’t think A was alluding to caste but using a common term but B took it as an allusion to his caste.
    Para, in another usage also means “strength” and “valor” and when combined with “ackrema” – aggression — becomes Parakrama Bahu of the Sinhala royalty.In Tamil it becomes Para+Rajasingham a common Tamil name; and then there was Para-Raja- Sekaran, a king of the “non existent” Jaffna Kingdom!!

    In contemporary political discourse in SL the Tamils are both foreigners and outcastes – paras and pariahs!!
    Still, I was surprised to read that even in the rarefied circles of St. Thomas’s College, Sarvendran Ponnuthurai, the son of one my teachers at Jaffna College and a close friend of my late father, was called a “paradamilla”!! It never happened to me at Royal College during my brief sojourn there, however.
    R S Perinbanayagam

    • Sach

      hi, I am not well versant in this subject like you. but i dont think ‘para’ in parakrama bahu gave the same meaning as you said.
      In Pali language, there is this word ‘parama’ which means the infinity of something. Like if I say

  4. Sach

    So para in sinhala also (especially) in ancient times) has a different meaning. Parakramabahu means very very strong arms. where ‘para’ term gives the very very strong meaning when joined with akrama.

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