Tamils in Ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka: The Historical Roots of Ethnic Identity

Sirima Kiribamune, in Ethnic Studies Report, vol IV/1, January 1986, pp. 1-23 … article retrieved via meticulous work by Iranga Silva of the ICES, Kandy — in a committed labour of love

“The past is intelligible to us only in light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past.” E.H. Carr.[*]

Professor Kiribamune

The current ethnic problems of Sri Lanka form the backdrop to this paper. The present tension lies between the majority Sinhalese who speak an Indo-Aryan tongue and the Tamils who use a Dravidian language. The two groups claim distinct racial antecedents, the Sinhalese styling themselves Aryans from north India and the Tamils tracing their origins to the Dravidians of the south. (The use of the terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ to denote racial groups is considered totally unscientific. This terminology can only be used in a linguistic context. Sinhalese is included in the Indo-European or Aryan group of languages and Tamil belongs to the Dravidian group. The division of people speaking these two groups of languages into distinct racial types is not valid even for India and less so for Sri Lanka.) This division is further marked by religious differences, the Sinhalese being largely Buddhist and the Tamils, Hindus. Interested parties on both sides of the conflict have tried to use the past to legitimise different standpoints. It is the responsibility of the historian to set the record straight and that is the aim of this paper, but one is all too aware of the fact that complete detachment in the writing of history is hardly ever achieved. It is an ideal towards which one strives and needs to strive.

Archaeological evidence relating to the pre-Christian period

Sri Lanka’s close geographical proximity to South India and its easy accessibility by sea from all parts of coastal India were no doubt important factors in the ethnic composition of the island’s population. Recent archaeological investigations have yielded radiocarbon dates going back to 28,000 B.C. for a mesolithic stone tool technology in Sri Lanka.[2] Skeletal remains found at the same site (Baṭadombaleana in Southwest Sri Lanka) have been dated to as far back as 14,000 B.C.[3] Who these humans were has still not been established. The examination of skeletal remains of the mesolithic and early iron-age periods discovered earlier in Sri Lanka have not yielded positive conclusions, except establishing certain affinities between them and the Vädda tribal group.[4] From these archaeological investigations, however, one is made aware of certain techno-cultural traits relating to early man. Stone using humans appear to have been the sole inhabitants of Sri Lanka until about 400 B.C. at which point occurred a certain intrusive culture associated with a black and red ceramic type, iron, the horse and tank irrigation, features common to the Megalithic culture of Peninsula India. These characteristics at the excavation site in Anuradhapura have been found to be associated with certain culture traits which are typically North Indian.[5] Relevant to this issue are a number of burial sites of people using iron, and black and red pottery, which have come to light in various parts of Sri Lanka. It has been noticed that these burials together with their culture traits are closest to the Megalithic culture of Central and South India.[6] This culture in Peninsula India seems to extend from about 950 B.C. to the early Christian era.[7] A chronology ranging from about the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. has been suggested for the Sri Lankan burial sites.[8] Although an attempt has been made to push back the Megalithic burial culture of Sri Lanka to c. 600 B.C.[9], this would remain speculative until such a date can be scientifically assigned to a definite burial site. Therefore the earliest date we have of a techno-culture close to the Megalithic culture of South India is 400 B.C. at which chronological level were also found north Indian cultural characteristics. This evidence as, Deraniyagala shows, is in keeping with the picture presented in the traditional historical sources.[10] [9]

The Mahāvaṃsa[11] [10], the main chronicle of the island (c. 6th century A.D.) attributes the earliest human settlements in the country to a group of people who came from northern India in about the 5th century B.C. Vijaya, their King, is said to have married a princess from South India. Accompanying her were other maidens and a thousand families belonging to the 18 guilds.[12] [11) The Dīpavaṃsa[13] [12], which is the earlier chronicle (4th century A.D.), does not, however, record the South Indian connection. It is quite possible that the legends postulating a North Indian connection represent an earlier body of tradition. The archaeological evidence does not, however, suggest any mass migratory movement of people from either the north or the south of India but a transfer of certain techno-cultural ideas and the existence of trade. It must be stated at this point that there is a fair consensus of opinion that the North Indian culture of this period had an Aryan linguistic base. As for the Megalithic culture, although a Dravidian authorship has been postulated, some doubts have been raised regarding this point of view.[14] [13] Definite conclusions about the racial characteristics of Sri Lankans of the early historic period will have to await further evidence.

The problem that has been discussed so far is a concern of the present. It would be interesting to see if it was also a concern of the past. In other words did racial consciousness play any part in the colonisation stories of the ancients. Both in the Dīpavaṃsa and in the Mahāvaṃsa, one meets with the concept that Sri Lanka was destined to be the land of Buddhism and that the Sinhalese were the people chosen to protect that religion. This ideology is stronger in the Mahāvaṃsa than in the Dīpavaṃsa.[15] [14) Therefore the absence of Vijaya’s connections with South India in the Dīpavaṃsa cannot be attributed to the influence of this ideology. It would seem that the tradition itself did not form part of the earliest stratum of historical tradition in the island. The Mahāvaṃsa which incorporates a more inflated version of the Vijayan story recounts the South Indian connection without any racial overtones. Prince Vijaya despatches his envoys to Madura in South India to find himself a queen. The King of Madura sends back not only his daughter but also a number of other maidens (who were later married to Vijaya’s ministers and retainers according to their social status) together with a 1000 families from among the 18 craft guilds. This account shows that at the time these stories arose, there did not exist any prejudice regarding the regional origins of the early settlers of Sri Lanka. The peaceful movement of people between India (the north and the south) and Sri Lanka was taken for granted and they were absorbed into the mainstream of society.

According to the Chronicles the people of Sri Lanka were called Siṃhala. It has been suggested that the name was given first to a dynasty, then to a kingdom and finally to a people.[16] [15) Paranavitana who has analysed the ethnic terms which occur in the early Brahmi inscriptions (3rd century B.C.1st century A.D.) points out that the name Siṃhala does not appear in these records for it was not distinctive to be called so, for almost everyone was a Sinhalese.[17][16) This seems to be a plausible explanation especially in view of the fact that a number of people have stated their group identities. One such group was the Tamils referred to as Dameḍas in these records. An inscription dated to the 2nd century B.C. makes reference to five Tamil householders (Dameḍa gahapatikana) whose leader seems to have been a mariner (navika).[18][17] It is very likely that this group represents certain trading interests. Two other inscriptions also of about the same period, mention a Tamil trader, Visākha (Dameḍa Vanijha gapati visaka).[19][18] There is yet another reference to a Tamil lady, Tiśa. This inscription is fragmentary but the words Digavapi poraṇa vanijhana[20] [19) (the ancient traders of Dīghavapi) indicate a trade connection. The insights afforded by these records illustrate the point made earlier, that peaceful migrants from South India went through a process of acculturation and absorption, having maintained their group identity for some time. We need, at this point, to emphasise a crucially significant point namely that all these Tamils use the Sinhalese language and Brahmi script which are common to all the records of this period. Both the lady Tiśa and the trader, Visākha, make Buddhist donations, while the exact purpose of the inscription of the Tamil householders is not clear. It is also interesting to note that all of them have Indo-Aryan names. It is very unlikely that any of them were first generation Tamils. The question which arises naturally is, why did these people, who are otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of the donors of cave grants, refer to their Tamil identity? The reason is not far to seek as all of them are in some way connected with trade.

The foreign trade of Sri Lanka during the pre-Christian period was largely with India. It is very likely that the South Indian traders played an important part in this regard. The prestigious position occupied by them is amply demonstrated by the fact that Sena and Guttika, sons of a Tamil horse trader, were able to capture political power at a time not very far removed from the time of the inscriptions under review. Sena and Guttika too are known by Indo-Aryan names, again suggesting the tendency towards absorption noticed already. The Tamil trading groups would no doubt have wished to continue their commercial links with the mercantile communities of South India and group identity was probably a factor which facilitated mutual dealings. Therefore, styling themselves Dameḍa was both prestigious and profitable as far as the Tamil traders of the 2nd century B.C. were concerned.

Perceptions of the early Pali chronicles

The earliest Tamils to receive attention in the historical chronicles of Sri Lanka are those who succeeded in gaining political power at Anuradhapura during the pre-Christian period. The Dīpavaṃsa refers to them in very matter-of-fact terms and without the slightest indication that their rule was unwelcome. The Tamil kings Sena and Guttika are said to have ruled righteously.[21][20] Eḷāra, referred to as a Tamil from the Coḷa country in the Mahāvaṃsa is mentioned in the Dīpavaṃsa without any reference to his racial identity.[22][21] The five rulers who displaced Vaṭṭagāmanī temporarily and held the Anuradhapura throne in succession are said to have been Tamils by birth. Their names are given as Pu1ahattha, Bāhiya, Panayamāra, Pa1ayamara and Dāṭhiya.[23][22) Subsequently, there were two Tamils among the paramours of queen Anu1a, whom she placed on the throne, one was Vaṭuka described as a foreigner (annadesiko) and the other was Niliya, known as the Tamil King (Damila rājā ti vissuto).[24][23] The queen of Candamukhasiva (1st century A.D.) was known as Damilā devī.[25][24] Apart from indicating that these individuals belonged to a group different from the rest and that one, of them was a foreigner, the Dīpavṃsa perceives occasional Tamil rule in Sri Lanka with a fair amount of detachment. Although one detects a Sinha1a-Buddhist slant in some of the Dīpavaṃsa stories, the text as a whole is not affected by any prejudice against the Tamils.

In dealing with these same events, the Mahāvaṃsa demonstrates a major change of attitude. In this work the Buddhist ideology is much stronger and more importantly, it is tied up with racial prejudice. Tamil rule of the pre-Christian period is presented as a completely alien factor in the politics of Sri Lanka. Sena and Guttika are said to have been the sons of a mariner trading in horses (assanāvika) emphasising their foreign origin.[26][25] Eḷāra is described as a Damiḷa who came from the Coḷa country.[27][26) The five Tamil rulers of the Vaṭṭagāmanī period are referred to as Damiḷas who landed at Mahātittha with troops.[28][27) Not much significance is attached to the two Tamil paramours of Anula, both of whom are depicted as mere pawns in the hands of the queen.

Reading through the Mahāvṃsa account of the above regnal periods, it is possible to detect two distinct standpoints, one that is very similar to the stance taken by the Dīpavaṃsa and another which reflects a great deal of prejudice. Taking up the first strand, one notices that the author of the Mahāvṃsa repeats the same words found in the Dīpavaṃsa to say that Sena and Guttika ruled with justice (rajjaṃ dhammena kārayum). In respect of Eḷāra too, both chronicles speak of his righteous rule. In fact, the Mahāvṃsa author is very expansive on the subject, illustrating the just and humane nature of Eḷāra, with popular legend. The King is even said to have followed the traditional practice of offering alms to Buddhist monks. He is also credited with the repair of a Buddhist temple which he had damaged accidentally. Regarding the five Tamil rulers of the Vaṭṭagāmanī period there is no comment on the nature of their rule, following the same spirit of detachment noticed in the Dīpavaṃsa.

The other face of Tamil rule which the Mahāvaṃsa contrives to present is that Buddhism suffered and could not expect to prosper under Tamil kings. The future of Buddhism is held out as the rationale for supporting Vaṭṭagāmanī against the Tamils who could not be expected to further the religion.[29] [28) Apart from this statement, the major area in which the ‘Buddhism in danger’ theory, is worked out is in the ‘Epic of Duṭṭhagāmani’, which forms a sizeable segment of the Mahāvaṃsa. Eḷāra is said to have been a non-Buddhist[30][29] and the Tamils under him desecrated thupas and other places of Buddhist worship.[31][30] During his campaign in the north of Sri Lanka, Duṭṭhagāmanī is said to have fought 32 Tamil kings,[32][31] whereas in the Dīpavaṃsa they are simply referred to as 32 kings and not Tamil kings. The Mahāvaṃsa asserts that Tamils were slain in large numbers.[33][32] The account of the war is brought to a close with the Buddhist monks consoling the king who felt remorse at so much carnage. Only one and a half human beings have been killed, say the monks, for among them there was only one who had taken refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’ and another who had observed the five precepts. The rest who were non-believers and persons of sinful conduct are likened to beasts. Leaving aside the un-Buddhist nature of this view, what is important for our purpose is the total condemnation of the Tamils.

An examination of the Duṭṭhagāmanī-Eīāra story in the Mahāvaṃsa makes it fairly clear that this non-Buddhist, anti-Tamil attitude is superimposed on a situation which did not call for such a stance.[34][33] Eḷāra was a patron of Buddhism and he was not fighting a Tamil war. Sinhalese generals led his armies[35] (34) and there was no conceivable difference between the troops fighting on the two sides.[36][35] Duṭṭhagāmanī’s was a war of unification, twisted to serve an ideology which was perhaps prompted by different circumstances.

It would be useful at this point to see how this ideology came about and what concerns and fears lay behind the traditions embodied in the Mahāvaṃsa. There is no gainsaying the fact that there is in these accounts a great intensity of feeling against the Tamils. Nandimitta, one of Duṭṭhagāmanī’s warriors, is made to tear up Tamils, holding one leg down with his foot.[37](36) One of the pregnancy longings of Vihāramahadevī was to drink the water that had washed the sword used to sever the head of Eḷāra’s commander-in-chief, while standing on that head. This the fortune-tellers interpret to mean that prince Duṭṭhagāmanī will defeat the Tamils.[38][37) The Mahāvaṃsa is traditionally ascribed to the 6th century A.D. and it has been argued that the Tamil invasions during the 5th century A.D. prompted much of this hostility, the beginnings of which may be traced to the reign of Vaṭṭhagāmanī in the 1st century B.C. It is claimed that the need to liberate North Sri Lanka from Tamil rule in the 5th century A.D. constituted the background in which Duṭṭhagāmanī emerged as a national hero.[39][38] This is not an acceptable view. The political unification of the country for the first time would have raised Duṭṭhagāmanī to this position in his own life time.[40](39) Also inscriptional evidence belonging to the 5th century A.D. shows that the Tamil rulers of this period had Buddhist leanings.[41][40]

The theory that the Mahāvaṃsa reflects an attitude of mind which arose in response to a militant anti-Buddhist environment in South India in and after the 7th century A.D.[42](41) is also problematic. The Mahāvaṃsa is a work based on earlier sources, mainly the Sīhalaṭṭhakathā Mahāvaṃsa. The early sections of this Sinhalese chronicle appear to have reached a final form in about the 1st century A.D., when the writing down of texts came into vogue.[43](42) It is very likely that much of the Duṭṭhagāmanī epic, which concerns a period prior to this event, had reached the form in which we know it by that time. A natural question that arises at this point is, why the Dīpavaṃsa written in the 4th century A.D., does not contain the Duṭṭhagāmanī story in the same form as in the Mahāvaṃsa. The answer to this lies partly in the fact that the Dīpavaṃsa had certain limited objectives. It was written at a time when Mahavihāra was challenged by non-Theravada schools of thought. The main thrust of this chronicle is to establish the purity and authenticity of the Theravāda point of view and the primacy of the Mahāvihara.[44][43) The Duṭṭhagāmanī story had little relevance here. This section, even as it appears in the Mahāvaṃsa, stands out as a separate entity and may not have been totally integrated into the main narrative of the historical tradition at the time the Dīpavaṃsa was composed.

The Duṭṭhagāmanī story in the Mahāvaṃsa has the strong flavour of a Rohana or Southern Sri Lankan tradition. The events described in three out of the four chapters devoted to the secular events of his reign take place in Southern Sri Lanka. That Rohana possessed a tradition of history writing is demonstrated by the Dhātuvaṃsa.[45] [44) The Duṭṭhagāmanī story seems to have originated in this part of the country. The period that was most conducive for such a tradition to gain ground was the reign of Vaṭṭagāmanī. During this time, the invasion of the island by Tamil kings was further complicated due to a rebellion by a certain Brahmin Tissa. The situation was still further exacerbated by one of the most severe famines on record. People moved South to Rohana, but that region too was not spared, and some Buddhist monks and nuns even left for India.[46]  Eventually it was Rohana which provided the springboard for Vaṭṭagāmanī to capture power. The opposition to Vaṭṭagāmanī came from three non-Buddhist sections—the Tamils, Brahmin Tissa and Nigantha Giri, a Jain. The people of Rohana no doubt needed tales of heroic deeds to keep up their spirits in the face of severe hardship. The knowledge that certain non-Buddhist elements were in control, the Tamils being the most influential among them, would have resulted in the transfer of all blame to them for the suffering people underwent. It was after Vaṭṭagāmanī returned to power that the decision to write down the Pali Buddhist texts and their commentaries was taken. With the return of the monks to Anuradhapura, the Rohana traditions would have found a place in the historical introduction to the Sinhalese commentaries, the principal source of the Mahāvaṃsa. Therefore, the hostile feelings towards the Tamils and non-Buddhists seem to have arisen in a climate of dire distress, at a time when the people of Rohana perceived the situation in North Sri Lanka in exaggerated terms and attributed all their trials and tribulations to Tamil invaders and non-Buddhist elements.

Both the Dīpavaṃsa and the Mahāvaṃsa deal with the history of Sri Lanka up to the beginning of the 4th century A.D. The latter chronicle superseded the former and the Dīpavaṃsa receded into the background. The many references to the Mahāvaṃsa by later writers, the decision to continue the chronicle to include subsequent periods of history and the writing of a commentary on the Mahāvaṃsa sometime after the 7th century A.D. demonstrate the high esteem enjoyed by this text. Its ideology would have made a deep impression on the minds of the Sinhalese at all times. Invasions from South India were not infrequent in Sri Lankan history and Duṭṭhagāmanī became the model for those seeking to drive out the enemy. The elaboration of the Duṭṭhagāmanī legend in the Thūpavaṃsa during the 13th century, in the Saddharmālankāra during the 14th century, the Rājāvaliya in the 17th century and the Rājaratnākara in the 18th century satisfied the needs of a people beleaguered by foreign invasion and foreign rule. It is no wonder that the Duṭṭhagāmanī-Eīāra story is once again on the lips of people gripped by a sense of fear and insecurity. My own guess is that more myths are currently being added to the Duṭṭhagāmanī saga.

The Tamil kings who captured power in Sri Lanka up to the 5th century A.D. did so with local assistance. During this time we do not have evidence of powerful kingdoms in South India whose political horizon spread as far as Sri Lanka. Therefore, the Tamils who came over together with their followers were gradually absorbed into the island’s culture. The inscriptions of the period do not show a separate Tamil cultural element in the country. It is interesting to note that not a single Tamil inscription of the pre-10th century period has come to light so far. The earliest inscription in Tamil has been dated to a period immediately preceding the Coḷa conquest of the island at the end of the 10th century A.D.[47][46] It would seem that the process of absorption had slowed down. How this came about can be traced in our sources.

Prospects and problems of assimilation

From about the 7th century, South India witnessed the birth of empires, beginning with the Pallavas, to be followed by the Pāndyas and then by the Coḷas. The growth of political power in South India was a natural threat to Sri Lanka and it is known that all these empire builders cast covetous eyes on the island. One possible way in which South Indian rulers could exert their authority on Sri Lanka was by supporting individual princes on the throne and this they tried to do with increasing frequency. The Sinhalese kings also took the offensive when they felt strong enough to do so and they in turn began to take an active part in the power struggles of South India. These events not only destabilised political conditions in the country but also added a foreign element in the form of the Tamil mercenary, with disturbing consequences.

Disaffected princes who could not find military support in the island sometimes reached out to South India for troops. This practice is first noticed in the 1st century A.D. when Ilanāga (33-43 A.D) captured the throne with foreign troops.[48][47] Two centuries later Abhayanāqa (231-240 A.D.) brought over Tamil soldiers to fight his enemies.[49] 48) It took another 250 years before the next contender Mogga11āna I (491-508 A.D.) returned from India with troops to capture the throne from his brother Kassapa 1.[50][49] These three seem to be isolated instances in a long period of dynastic history and they did not make any impact in terms of a foreign element. By the 7th century, however, the situation became quite different. During the course of this century, the Cūlavaṃsa [51][50] gives five instances when Tamil troops were brought over to participate in the power struggles of local princes. Although the backing of Indian rulers is not recorded except in the case of Mānavamma (684-718 A.D.) who received troops from the Pallava king Narasiṃhavarman,[52][51] it is very likely that such support was forthcoming. The chronicle describes these Tamil soldiers in the most condemnatory terms. Many of the Damilas brought by a general during the time of Silameghavarna (619-628 A.D.) are said to have been killed and the survivors distributed among the Buddhist temples as slaves.[53][52] Although Aggabodhi III (628 A.D.) was defeated, he is said to have hewn dawn the Damilas while his strength lasted and finally committed suicide when a Damila was approaching to kill him.[54][53] The Damilas together with Dāthopatissa (639-656 A.D.) whom they served are said to have plundered temples and burnt down the palace and the temple of the Tooth Relic.[55] [54] Subsequent attempts to expel them failed and the Cūlavaṃsa records that the Tamil soldiers requested a Sinhalese prince Hatthadāṭha (659-666 A.D.), who was living in India at the time, to accept the throne.[56][55] Some Tamil generals like Potthakuṭṭha, Potthasāla and Mahākanda were given high office by the Sinhalese kings. Potthakuṭṭha even acted as king-maker for a brief period. Although the Tamils had become militarily a distinctively important factor in the country, they seem to have fallen in line with the cultural traditions of the island. All these generals mentioned above are said to have made extensive donations to Buddhist temples[57][56] and it is possible to imagine that they had become converts to Buddhism. Close contact with the Buddhists of South India is reflected in the reference to a Damila bhikkhu community which received donations from the queen of Udaya I (797-801 A.D.).[58][57] Some Tamils did, however, remain an alien group.

The 8th century, which saw some dynastic stability in the country, appears to have been relatively free of Indian troop movements. With the 9th century, however, Sinhalese rulers were called upon to face an entirely new situation, i.e., an open attempt to bring Sri Lanka under the political hegemony of South India. The first to try this were the pāṇḍyans whose invasion caused great devastation in the country. The invaders, described in the Cūlavaṃsa as ‘plundering devils’, were some Tamils who were resident in the country[59].[58] A counter-invasion in support of a Pāṇḍya prince by Sena II was successful and he was able to place his nominee on the Pāṇḍyan throne.[60][59] The Pāṇḍyans were now called upon to meet the threat of the Coḷas and Sri Lanka began a policy of active collaboration with the Pāṇḍyans against the Coḷas. Invasions and counter-invasions followed throughout 10th century at the end of which Sri Lanka or the major part of it became a province of the Coḷa empire.

The events of the 9th and 10th centuries left a deep mark on both the social and political fabric of the country. The movement of troops between Sri Lanka and South India led to an increase in the number of Tamils resident in Anuradhapura and its environs. During this period, rulers found it necessary to make special arrangements for the maintenance of Tamil soldiers. In the reign of Sena II (853-887 A.D.), we hear of a Demeḷa adhikāri (named Mahāsattānā) for the first time.[61] [60] Another Demeḷa adhikāri named Utur Paṇḍirad is met with in the reign of Kassapa IV (898-914 A.D). Both officers were among those who were responsible for the promulgation of immunity grants to certain lands, and in the second grant the land involved is said to have included a Demeḷa käbälla (Tamil allotment). The suggestion has been made that the Demeḷa adhikāri was an officer in charge of such allotments.[62][61] (By the 12th century, however, Damiḷadhikāri had become a mere titular office as separate regulations for Tamil allotments had been done away with by this time.) References to dues from Tamil allottees (Demeḷ kuli), Tamil land allotments (Demeḷ kabala)[63], [62] land enjoyed by Tamils (demalat valademin āvu}, [64][63] and village land belonging to Tamils (Demeḷ gam bim)[65] [64] make it clear that these were areas set aside for this group of people, and it is likely that special regulations were operative in them. The village of Kinigama for instance had a separate section which was called Demeḷ Kinigam,[66][65] suggesting that the Tamil residents, most probably mercenary soldiers, were given separate land allotments for administrative convenience. The popularity of South Indian drums, tudi and soli,[67] [66] during the 9th and 10th centuries would no doubt have been due to their introduction by the mercenaries as war drums.

The evidence cited above is perhaps an indication as to the mechanisms by which the Sinhalese rulers tried to manage the problem of the large influx of Tamil soldiers during the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. However, the graver issue they had to reckon with was the fear of South Indian political domination. This fear was shared by the Buddhist Sangha, for Tamil rule could lead to a decline in royal patronage for Buddhism and Buddhist institutions. It is in this climate of fear and insecurity that we meet with a reiteration of the dhammadīpa concept in even stronger terms. It became a potent weapon and was used as such to ward off non-Buddhists from aspiring to the throne. An inscription of Mahinda IV (956-972 A.D.) asserts that the Budw1a had decreed that only bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) would become kings of Sri Lanka.[68][67] Although there is a tacit understanding throughout the chronicles that rulers should normally be Buddhists, the expression of this concept in such emphatic terms in a public document would have been in response to the real threat of South Indian political hegemony.

The internal measures adopted by the Sinhalese kings to control the Tamil mercenaries could only succeed under strong rulers. Mahinda V, a weakling, found it extremely difficult to keep the mercenaries in and around Anuradhapura under control. Ultimately a revolt by the Kerala mercenaries in his army forced him to flee to Rohana.[69] [68] The Coḷa kings Rājarāja I and Rajendra I took advantage of these events and the result was the conquest of the northern part of Sri Lanka during the last decade of the l0th century. The period of Coḷa rule which lasted till about 1070 A.D. saw a further influx of Tamils to Sri Lanka. Traders, administrators and military men took up residence in the country and the Tamils began to use their own language for donatory records. Although one or two Tamil inscriptions which record donations to Hindu shrines can be dated to the tail end of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, it is only during the Coḷa occupation that such records become increasingly evident.[70][69] The language of administration used by the Coḷas was Tamil and the language of Śaivism which they patronised was also Tamil. During this period the Tamil Buddhists record a donation to the Velgam vehera in their own language.[71] [70] The building of a number of Śaiva temples are on record, this being a further indication of an increase in the Tamil population. This was only to be expected, with the repeated despatch of Coḷa forces from South India to maintain their hold over the country. While the Coḷas ruled in the North, a number of independent rulers held sway in the Southern Province of Rohana. It is interesting to note that among them were two Pāṇḍyan princes, Vikkama Pāṇḍu and Parakkama Pāṇḍu. They owed their position to total Sinhalese support. A long period of cooperati0n between the Pāṇḍyans and the Sinhalese had resulted in a feeling of mutual trust – the common enemy being the Coḷas. There is no doubt that Pāṇḍyan soldiers were also fighting on the side of the Sinhalese against the Coḷas in Sri Lanka. It was perhaps this trust which made Vijayabāhu I, the vanquisher of the Coḷas, give his sister, Mittā, in marriage to a Pāṇḍyan prince.

With the restoration of Sinhalese rule at Polonnaruwa in c. 1070 A.D., Vijayabāhu I had on his hands a large body of captive Coḷa soldiers as well as Pāṇḍyan and other mercenaries who had been fighting on behalf of the Sinhalese. It would seem that the king himself employed some of them in his army. However, the events which followed show that he could not depend on their complete loyalty. An invasion of the Coḷa country, planned by the king, had to be abandoned due to an uprising of the Veḷaikkāra troops, who did not wish to participate in an invasion of their motherland. The rebellion was so formidable that Vijayabāhu was forced to leave Polonnaruwa. One must remember, however, that the Veḷaikkāras would not have been acting alone but with the support of Sinhalese rebels. With final victory, the Veḷaikkāra soldiers were thoroughly subdued although some continued to be in the service of the king. Immediately after the death of Vijayabāhu I, we find that the Veḷaikkāra forces were called upon to protect the Tooth Relic temple, the villages attached to it and its employees. The fact that the request was made by the chief Buddhist monk of the time and the state ministers shows that the Veḷaikkāra had gained considerable power during the political upheavals created by civil war among the heirs of Vijayabāhu I.

Amidst the gigantic task of restoring Sinhalese rule, Buddhism and Buddhist institutions-­tasks which Vijayabāhu I undertook with great zest, he had also to take note of the fact that there was in the country a fairly large group of Hindu Tamils whose needs had to be met. The existence of a Śaiva shrine named Vijayarāja Īsvaran at Kantalai suggests that Vijayabāhu patronised it. It is possible that the king tried to make Sinhalese rule acceptable to the Tamils who decided to remain in the country.

Although the Coḷas were defeated in Sri Lanka, in South India they were still a power to be reckoned with and the threat of Coḷa invasion was ever present. This was the principal motivating factor behind the foreign policy of Vijayabāhu I. In his great enthusiasm for making friends with those who were antagonistic to the Coḷas, marriage alliances were contracted with the Kaliṅgas and the Pāṇḍyas. These alliances eventually led to factional strife in the royal court of Polonnaruwa.

The death of Vijayabāhu I plunged Sri Lanka into civil war, the contending parties being the male heirs of the king by his Kaliṅga queen and the descendants of his sister Miṭṭa, who was married to a Pāṇḍyan prince. Jayabāhu, the immediate successor of Vijayabāhu, supported what might be called the Pāṇḍyan faction, but those of the Kaliṅga group were able to secure the throne. Vikramabāhu I, the son of Vijayabāhu, captured the capital city but lost the two regions of Dakkhinadeśa and Rohaṇa to the sons of Miṭṭa. However, it is noteworthy that both Vikramabāhu I and his son Gajabāhu II administered the country without the royal consecration, without the right to use their regnal years for purposes of official dating and without the right to issue a fresh coinage.[72] [71) Legitimate kingship was restored by Parakramabāhu I (1153-1186 A.D.), who could claim descent from both the Kaliṅga and Pāṇḍya houses. His predecessors at Polonnaruwa owed their plight to the fact that they were not Buddhists. The matrimcnia1 connections which the royal families of Sri Lanka had with the ruling houses of South India and the Deccan and occasionally with kingdoms of the North such as Kananj, made foreign affiliation, whether it was regional or racial, immaterial in the legitimation of power. These differences were not relevant as long as those who aspired to the throne were Buddhists. With so much inter-mixture with the royal houses of India, Buddhism was the only means by which a distinct identity could be maintained by Sri Lankan rulers and this was jealously guarded.

The growth of separate identities

 Among the successors of Parakramabāhu I, Nissaṇkamalla (1187-1196) and his brother Sahasamalla (1200-1202) take great pride in their Kaliṅqa connection. Lī1āvatī is said to have belonged to the Pāṇḍuvaṃsa and Ka1yānavatī to the Gaṅgavaṃsa. None of these connections were a barrier to legitimate kingship. The operative factor was Buddhism which is clearly underscored in a statement in the Dāthāvaṃsa,[73] (72) a 12th century Pali text, where it says that the general who was acting as king-maker at the time, trained a Pāṇḍyan prince, Madhurinda, in the arts and made him conversant with the doctrines of Buddhism so that he could assume kingship. Māgha, the last king of the Polonnaruwa kingdom, is described as a heretic. We have no reference to his regnal dates and no coins were issued by him. Magha’s reign is marked out as an interregnum in the dynastic history of Sri Lanka, obviously for the same reasons discussed above. What is remarkable is how these non-Buddhist rulers, who wielded so much power, were restrained from issuing coins or dating records with their regnal dates. That this was the accepted law of the land, sanctified through age-old custom, is reiterated in many a text. Nissaṇkamalla proclaims in his inscriptions that Coḷa, Pāṇḍya and Keraḷa princes who were non-Buddhists had no claim to the throne of Sri Lanka.[74](73) The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that whenever there is prejudice against the Tamils in general, it is because they were identified as a group of invaders and when there is prejudice against Tamil ruling families, it is either because they were invaders or they were non-Buddhists or both. The racial factor was not a consideration.

South Indian troops, most important among them the Veḷaikkāras, continued to be part of the military establishment of Sri Lanka kings. They play a decisive role in the events which followed the death of Vijayabāhu I. In addition to the fact that a group of them were entrusted with the shrine of the sacred Tooth Relic, they are known to have helped Vikramabāhu I to gain Polonnaruwa, having seized Miṭṭa and her sons. Gajabāhu II too was dependent on these troops, but being mercenary soldiers, they could be bought by the opposing faction at a higher pay. The Cūlavaṃsa records that on one occasion Mānābharana and his brothers bribed the Veḷaikkāras to turn away from Gajabāhu. During the reign of Parakramabāhu I, once again the Veḷaikkāras together with Keraḷa and Sinhala soldiers are said to have staged a rebellion which was severely crushed. However, the king continued to employ them in his army, for it is stated that having defeated them, those deserving were given grants of land. It would seem that these mercenary soldiers could use their military strength to gain concessions – land in this instance.

Under the two Hindu regimes of Vikramabāhu I and Gajabāhu II, Tamil Hindus were in a position of advantage. Vikrarmbāhu is known to have persecuted Buddhism and it is said that he converted monasteries into barracks for foreign soldiers. Gajabāhu, according to the Cūlavaṃsa, fetched nobles of heretical faith and spread heresy in Rajaraṭa. Just as in the period of Coḷa occupation, one meets with a fair sprinkling of Tamil inscriptions, which can be a ascribed to the reigns, of Vikramabāhu I and Gajabāhu II. The patronage of Śaiva temples is in evidence end there are a number of references to South Indian trading corporations which were active in Sri Lanka during this time.[75] [74) With the accession of Parakramabāhu I, there is a drying up of the number of Tamil inscriptions, there being only one belonging to his reign discovered so far. This too is a document set up for the benefit of South Indian traders who called at the port of Ūratturai (Kayts) in Northern Sri Lanka.[76] [75]

None of the rulers who followed Parakramabāhu I at Polonnaruwa have set up inscriptions in Tamil, and even for private documents, the evidence is not conclusive. A few Tamil inscriptions which have been dated in the 13th century on palaeographic grounds belong to South Indian trade guilds and may not belong to the permanent population of the country. The case of Nissaṇkamalla is significant. This monarch to whom can be ascribed the largest number of inscriptions set up by any single monarch, only thought fit to have a document inscribed in Tamil at Rāmesvaram in South India, when he visited that place, Tamil being the language of administration there.

The fact that public documents were written in Sinhalese does not necessarily mean that the use of Tamil was discouraged. Parakramabāhu I is said to have got people to learn many languages to help in his espionage work. This suggests that different languages were spoken in the country. It is also said that the king used Tamils who could sing and dance as spies. The building of 13 Hindu temples and the restoration of 79 shrines in Rajaraṭa and 24 in Rohaṇa, as well as the provision of facilities for Brahmins are further indications that Parakramabāhu took adequate notice of the Hindus who formed part of the population. It is very likely that a large majority of them were Tamils. Nissaṇkamalla was yet another monarch who gave his patronage to Brahmins, and even took part in such Hindu ceremonies as navagrahasanti.

The greatest influx of South Indian Tamils so far had been during the Coḷa occupation. The next such augmentation of the Tamil sector occurred during the invasion of Māgha, the last ruler of Polonnaruwa. The intervening period too was not devoid of fresh additions, although the numbers may not have been as large. Parakramabāhu I carried on a long drawn out campaign in South India during which his generals are said to have sent back to Sri Lanka prisoners of war. It is reported that they were employed in the restoration of Buddhist temples. A number of minor Coḷa invasions took place during the latter part of the 12th century A.D. and some rulers of the period are said to have captured the throne with the help of Tamil troops. The king of Polonnaruwa at the time of Māgha’s invasion was a certain Parakrama Pāṇḍya, himself an invader.

The invasion of Māgha was catastrophic for Sri Lanka and more immediately for the Polonnaruwa kingdom. He is described as a heretic who stormed in with a vast army of Keraḷa and Damiḷa troops. The brutality of this attack has been documented in near contemporary sources. The troops, on the instructions of Māgha, are said to have destroyed Buddhist temples, harassed the monks and the Buddhist population. People were forcibly converted to a heretical faith and land belonging to the Sinhalese was given to the Tamil troops. Vihāras and Parivenas were converted into dwelling houses for them, forcing the monks to seek refuge in the Coḷa and Pāṇḍya countries. It is worthy of note that while vast hordes of Tamils were destroying Buddhism in Sri Lanka, another group of Tamils, who were Buddhists, were giving protection to the monks from Sri Lanka, once again demonstrating the absence of the racial or regional factor in the minds of people. Consequent to Māgha’s invasion, the local leaders sought refuge in mountain fastnesses to the South and Southwest of the island. The political situation was exacerbated by an invasion led by Chandrabhānu, a Malay (Jāvaka) ruler. The intervention of the Pāṇḍyans at this juncture complicated matters further. Many attempts have been made to unravel the sequence of events during this period which led to the establishment of a separate kingdom in Jaffna.[77][76) The reconstruction of events has to be conjectural at times due to meagre source material. The local resistance to Māgha was organised under the leadership of Parākramabāhu II, whose capital was at Dambadeniya, towards the Southwest of the country. Māgha’s authority was only felt in the Northern regions. The Sinhalese appear to have received Pāṇḍyan assistance against Māgha and initially against the Jāvakas under Candrabhānu. Subsequently, however, the Pāṇḍyans helped the son of Candrabhānu to set himself up as an independent ruler in the north of Sri Lanka. Continued Pāṇḍyan interference resulted in a Pāṇḍyan general of the Āryacakravarti family capturing power in the Jaffna Peninsula. The region between this kingdom and that of Dambadeniya became a buffer area. The rulers of both kingdoms tried to win the support of the forest or Vanni chiefs who held sway there. Both Sinhalese and Tamil Vanni nāyakas are known. The transformation of the kingdom of Jaffna, founded by the Jāvakas, into a Tamil kingdom took place under the Āryacakravartis who used Tamil as the language of administration. They extended their sway over adjoining territory as well but the exact boundaries of the Jaffna kingdom at any given time remains elusive. There were brief moments in the history of the Jaffna kingdom when the Āryacakravartis were able to take advantage of the weakness of the Sinhalese rulers and extend their influence even as far south as Gampola in central Sri Lanka. On the other hand, there is the capture of the northern kingdom by Parākramahāhu VI at the beginning of the 15th century, resulting in the political unification of the country during his reign. However, the Jaffna kingdom became independent once again after his death.

The political division of the country did not result in the total segregation of the two linguistic groups, although the language of administration became distinct in the two kingdoms. Tamils continued to live under Sinhalese rule although they did tend to be concentrated in the north for religious and cultural reasons. The Sinhalese in these areas seem to have become subject to Tamil cultural absorption, leaving a mark on the culture of the north as did the Tamils on the culture of the south. The deep cultural impact the Sinhalese and Tamils have had on each other has not been taken up for consideration in this paper.

The main object of this discussion has been to chart the process by which a distinct Tamil community came into existence in Sri Lanka during the period prior to the formation of the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna. What is perhaps strange is that given the geographical proximity of Sri Lanka to Dravidian India, and the almost un-interrupted political, cultural and commercial contact between these two regions from the dawn of history, the Sri Lanka Tamil population stands at around only 12 per cent. Despite the seeming inevitability of the Dravidianisation of Sri Lanka, the majority of its people have preserved a language and a religion which have their roots in Northern India. The fact that the sea routes of the Indian ocean converged on Sri Lanka made frequent contact possible with the Central and Northern parts of the sub-continent, as well as with the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. With Buddhism taking firm root in the country, a determined effort was made to maintain such contact, almost in an effort to keep at bay the influences from South India. The emergence of a Buddhist-Sinhala ideology, more Buddhist than Sinhala, was a strong contributory factor in the formation of Sri Lankan society.

The Tamil community in Sri Lanka was the result of peaceful migration, trade contact, political domination and military recruitment. There was a continuous process of absorption of these people into the macro-culture which began to stall with the large influx of Tamils as mercenaries in the 8th and 9th centuries and the Coḷa occupation of Sri Lanka at the end of the 10th century.  Differences between the two communities grew during the regnal periods of non-Buddhist kings like Vikramabāhu I and Gajabāhu II. The invasion of Māgha with South Indian troops brought the relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils under severe strain and finally the emergence of a Tamil dynasty under Pāṇḍyan hegemony in the 14th century became a rallying point for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.


This paper was prepared for the Asian Regional Workshop on Ethnic Minorities in Buddhist Polities, held in Bangkok, Thailand in June 1985.

Sirima Kiribamune is Associate Professor of History at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.


[*]       E.H. Carr, What is History?, Penguin Books, 1964, p. 55.

[1]     S.C. Deraniyagala, Ancient ‘Ceylon: Journal of the Archaeological Survey Department of Sri Lanka No.5, 1984, p. 107.

[2]     ibid.

[3].  S. U. Deraniyagala and Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, Ancient Ceylon, No.2, 1972, p. 44. J. Lukacs et Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, Ancient-Ceylon, No.4, 1981, pp. 97-132.

[4]     S.U. Deraniyagala, Ancient Ceylon, No.2, 1972, pp. 48-169.

[5]     Sudharshan Seneviratna, Ancient Ceylon, No.5, 1984, pp. 237-293.

[6]     ibid.

[7]    S. Paranavitana, Ceylon -Today, Vol. 5, No. iii, 1956, pp. 13-15; S.P.F. Senaratne, Journal of the National Museum of Ceylon, Vol. I, Pt. I, 1969, pp. 7-29. V. Begley, Ancient Ceylon, No.4, 1981, pp. 94-95.

[8]     Sudharshan Seneviratna, op.cit.

[9]     S.U. Deraniyagala, op.cit., p. 159.

[11]    Mahāvaṃsa (tr.) W. Geiger, P.T.S. 1934 [Mv.].

[12]    Mv. Ch. 7 vv. 51-58.

[13]    Dīpavaṃsa (Ed. & Tr.) H. 01denberg, 1879 [Dv.].

[14]    S.U. Deraniyagala, op.cit., p. 160.

[15]    Frank Perera, The Early Buddhist “Historiography of Ceylon, Gottingen, 1979, pp. 167-170.

[16]    R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, Sri-Lanka Journal of the-Humanities, Vol. V, Nos. 1 & 2, 1979, p. 10.

[17]    S. Paranavitana, Inscriptions of Ceylon, Vol. I, Colombo 1970, p. lxxxix.

[18]    ibid., p. 7, No. 94.

[19]    ibid., p. 28, Nos. 356 & 357.

[20]    ibid., p. 37, No. 490.

[21]    Dv., Ch. 18, V. 47.

[22]    ibid., V. 50ff.

[23]    Dv., Ch. 19, V. 14ff.; Ch. 20, V. 14ff.

[24]    ibid., Ch.20, vv. 27 & 29.

[25]    ibid., Ch. 21, v. 45.

[26]    Mv., Ch. 21, v. 13.

[27]    ibid., Ch.21, v. 13.

[28]    ibid., Ch.33, v. 39.

[29]    ibid., Ch.33, vv. 74-75.

[30]    ibid., Ch. 24, v. 34.

[31]    ibid., Ch. 23, vv. 4-10.

[32]    ibid., Ch. 25, v. 75.

[33]    ibid., Ch. 25, v. 25.

[34]    W.I. Siriweera, Modern Ceylon Studies, Vol. 7, 1976, Nos 1&2, pp 76-96.

[35]    Mv., Ch. 23, vv. 4-10.

[36]    ibid., Ch. 25, v. 16.

[37]    ibid., Ch. 23, vv. 9-10.

[38]    ibid., Ch. 22, vv. 44-47.

[39]    Frank Perera, op.cit., p. 108.

[40]    R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, op.cit., p. 16.

[41]    Epigraphia Zelanica, Vol. IV, p.114 [E.Z.].

[42]    R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, op.cit., pp. 16-17.

[43]    Sirima Kiribamune, Senarath Paranavitana Commemoration Volume, pp. 125-137.

[44]    Sirima Kiribamune, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol. V, Nos. 1&2, 1979, pp. 89-101.

[45]    Ed. D. Sri Sumedhamkara-Svami, Colombo, 1930.

[46]    University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon, Vol. 1, Pt. 1, p. 166 ff.

[47]    Epigraphia Tamilica, Vol. 1, pt. 1, 1971, p. 1 ff.

[48]    Mv., Ch. 35, vv. 25-28.

[49]    ibid., Ch. 36, v. 49.

[50]    ibid., Ch. 39, v. 32 ff.

[51]    W. Geiger, Cūlavaṃsa I (Eng. Tr), P.T.S., 1929 [Cv.]

[52]    Cv. Ch. 47, vv. 15-53.

[53]    ibid., Ch. 44, vv. 7-73.

[54]    ibid., Ch. 44, vv. 105-113.

[55]    ibid., Ch. 44, vv. 125-135.

[56]    ibid., Ch. 45, vv. 11-12.

[57]    ibid., Ch. 46, vv. 19-24.

[58]    ibid., p. 128.

[59]    ibid., Ch. 50, vv. 12-36.

[60]    ibid., Ch. 51, vv. 27-47.

[61]    E.Z., Vol. V, p. 287.

[62]    E.Z., I, pp. 167 & 173; E.Z., IV, pp. 53-54; E.Z., V, p. 352.

[63]    E.Z., III, pp. 271-273; E.Z., IV, p. 41.

[64]    E.Z., III, pp. 131-137.

[65]    E.Z., I, p. 117.

[66]    E.Z., II, pp. 52-53.

[67]    E.Z., III, p. 140.; E.Z., V, pp. 361 & 399.

[68]    E.Z., I, p. 234-241.

[69]    Cv., Ch. 55, vv. 4-8.

[70]    A Velupillai, Ceylon Tamil Inscriptions, pts. I & II, 1971.

[71]    Ceylon Journal of Science, Vol. II, p. 199.

[72]    Sirima Kiribamune, “Buddhism and Royal Prerogative in Medieval Sri Lanka”. In ed. Bardwell L. Smith, Religion & Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, 1978.

[73]    Dathavamsa, Ed. B.C. Law, Lahore, 1925.

[74]    E.Z., Vol. II, Nos 17 & 28.

[75]    A. Velupillai, op.cit.

[76]    Ibid.

[77]    Amaradasa Liyanagamage, The Decline of Polonnaruwa and the Rise of Dambadeniya, 1976; S. Pathmanathan, The Kingdom of Jaffna, 1978.; P.A.T. Gunasinghe, The Tamils of Sri Lanka, 1985.

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