WHO IS THE INDIGENOUS SRI LANKAN?
P. K. Balachandran
This very insightful and interesting article is by a senior journalist from Sri Lanka. This article was originally published in Hindustan Times, New Delhi. It is reproduced with the permission of the author. The photo reproduced below was not part of the original article. For an earlier article on the language policy of Sri Lanka touching upon the Tamil-Sinhala relations, please click here. We hope and pray that a mutually honorable and beneficial solution will soon be found for this problem. Thirumalai, Editor.
The Question of Indigenousness
One of the most contentious issues in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka
is the question of indigenousness.
Which community is indigenous and which is not? Are the Sinhalas the only indigenous people or the first to arrive in the island?
In other words, are the Tamils outsiders or later entrants?
Use of History -- Aryans and Dravidians?
Is Sri Lanka a multi-ethnic country or is it essentially a Sinhala country
with the other groups being a mere historical add on?
When the conflict between the majority Sinhalas and the minority Tamils became the central issue in post-independence Sri Lankan politics, both sides used "history" to buttress their respective cases.
Influenced by the colonial historiography of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Sinhalas declared that they were indigenous to the island, and that the Tamils were invaders from South India.
They said that the Sinhalas were Aryans from North India and the Tamils were Dravidians from South India.
The Tamils, on the other hand, argued that they were indigenous, with the North and the East as their traditional homeland.
They also contended that they were part and parcel of the ancient Tamil culture of South India and had little or nothing to do with the Sinhalas who lived in the rest of the island.
Views of Sri Lankan Historians
But renowned Sri Lankan historians and archeologists like K Indrapala,
Siran Deraniyagala, Leslie Gunawardena and Sudarshan Seneviratne, contend
that Sri Lanka has been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural from prehistoric
They add that both the Sinhalas and the Tamils are from the same South Indian-Sri Lankan (SISL) gene pool.
They reject the mass migration or invasion theory so popular among colonial and post-colonial historians.
They say that people, cultures, languages, religions, artifacts and technologies moved in small ways from place to place over long periods of time.
And these movements have not always been in one direction, as many seem to think.
Sure, there have been invasions, but invasions have not been the dominant mode of movement, they say.
Importance of Various Movements from Within and Without
Trade, cultural, religious and political movements and linkages have
played a more important role in social transformation than military conquests
or mass migration.
Sri Lankan and Indian historians like Romila Thapar also reject the theory of the displacement or annihilation of local populations by foreign ethnic groups.
There has been "language replacement" but rarely ever physical annihilation or replacement of populations, they say.
In his seminal work, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka: C 300 BCE to C 1200 BCE (The South Asian Studies Centre, Sydney 2005, Prof K Indrapala says the present-day territories of Sri Lanka and South India comprised a single region in which the pre-historic ancestors of the modern Sri Lankans and South Indians roamed freely with the sea dividing the two land masses acting as a unifier rather than a divider.
The Tamils have been in the island of Sri Lanka since long.
"The earliest inscriptions and the early Pali chronicles attest to the presence of the Tamils (Damedas/Damelas) in the EIA (Early Iron Age)," says Indrapala.
"The Demedas in Sri Lanka in the centuries BCE (Before Common Era or AD) need not, therefore, be considered as outsiders." Indrapala says.
The Ila (or Hela or Sila as the ancient Sri Lankan inhabitants were known) moved back and forth between Sri Lanka and South India just as the Demeda or Demela (Tamils) did.
"The idea of looking upon the Demedas as aliens was surely not prevalent in the Early Historical Period (EHP).
The earliest extant chronicle of the island, namely, the Dipavamsa, does not refer to the Damila rulers of Anuradhpura (Sena and Guttaka) in its list as invaders. Nor does the Mahawamsa, the most important ancient Sinhala chronicle.
The Mahawamsa describes Sena and Guttaka as 'sons of a horse-freighter' (assanaavikaputta)."
Sena and Guttaka, who had conquered Anruradhpura and ruled it for 22 years, were described in the Mahavamsa as having ruled "justly" Indrapala points out.
The account of the armed conflict between the Sinhala hero, Duttagamini, and the Tamil prince, Elara, in the Mahawamsa, has formed the basis of 20th century perception of the relations between the Sinhalas and the Tamils in ancient Sri Lanka.
But Indrapala and other modern historians consider this interpretation invalid.
They point out that the Mahawamsa had portrayed Elara as a just ruler who was admired greatly by Duttagamini.
The latter had noted that Elara was a protector of Buddhism, and admired him for being just to friend and foe alike.
Duttagamini even built a memorial for Elara and asked Sinhala Buddhists to worship at it.
"The idea that the Demela were foreign intruders and the Hela fought to liberate their people is nonsensical," Indrapala concludes.
Cultural and Political Symbiosis
Sinhala and Tamils kings of Sri Lanka and South India cooperated in peace and war.
It was not uncommon for a Sinhala king of Anuradhapura to seek the help of a Tamil prince in South India in war or to gain a throne.
Sinhala kings routinely recruited Tamil mercenaries from South India. Many of these settled down in the island.
Likewise, Sinhala princes aligned with Tamil Nadu rulers in their internecine wars.
In the reign of the Sinhala king Sena II (853-887) a Sinhala army sided with the Pallavas and defeated the Pandya king.
The Sinhala king placed his favourite Pandya prince on the throne in Madurai.
Later, after the ascendancy of the Cholas, the Sinhala kings sided with the Pandyas to contain the aggressive Cholas.
In times of peace, the Sinhalas of Sri Lanka and the South Indian Tamils cooperated in a variety of activities including the building of the irrigation tanks in Anuradhapura and Trincomalee.
Leslie Gunawardane has written extensively on SISL cooperation in irrigation works.
Tamil soldiers helped construct irrigation tanks in Anuradhapura and Trincomalee areas.
Tamil merchants in Sri Lanka contributed their mite to the building of these facilities.
Earlier, Megalithic folk from South India had brought to Sri Lanka the domesticated rice plant and taught Sri Lankans the use of iron.
Unifying role of Sanskritisation
Sri Lankans and the people of South India were able to communicate with each other and cooperate because of the use of Prakrit, a language used by the traders of South Asia in ancient times.
Prakrits were Sanskritic languages spoken by the common man in North India in ancient times.
The spread of Prakrit in both South India and Sri Lanka had brought about major cultural changes in both places.
The spread of the Tamil language, and Buddhist, Jaina and Saivite religions were other contributory factors.
However, there was a basic continuity in the population as such. There was a "biological continuum" right through history, Indrapala says.
What took place was cultural transformation but not physical transformation.
"The two ethnic communities, Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils, are ultimately descended from the Mesolithic people who occupied almost all parts of the island in prehistoric times," he says.
Sanskritsation, which is the adoption of North Indian Sanskritic linguistic, religious, cultural and social traits, has been a unifier both in South India and Sri Lanka.
True, Sanskritisation, though Prakrit, had affected the Sinhalas very much and the Tamils not so much.
But both were significantly affected giving rise to critical commonalities.
Social Movements and Changes
According to Indrapala, the harbingers of Sanskritisation were the Brahmins
and Kshatriyas, who came to the ports of long distance trade on the coasts
of South India and Sri Lanka.
At first, these immigrants had clashed with the local elite. But later, they established their dominance through reconciliation, intermarriage, cultural co-option and other non-confrontational means.
The pattern was: the local ruler would adopt Sanskritic names, trace his dynasty's links to a North Indian ancestor; make Brahmins his spiritual and political advisors; and give them gifts of land.
"The legends relating to Agastya, Parasurama, Kaundinya, Vijaya, Arjuna, the Pandyas, Cholas and the Pallavas show aspects of this pattern with minor variations," Indrapala observes.
The Impact of Well-Developed Tamil on Tamils
In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist rulers of Anuradhapura unwittingly aided the
Hindu/Tamil Saivite movement through the patronage of the Brahmins. Buddhist
kings had begun to look after Brahmins and setting up Brahmin villages
called Brahmadeyas. They renovated temples.
However, the impact of Prakrit was not uniform either in South India or in Sri Lanka.
Andhra, Karnataka and North Tamil Nadu showed a greater impact than Southern Tamil Nadu and North Sri Lanka. The earliest inscriptions help prove this point.
One reason for this was that Tamil was a developed language in the second half of the first millennium Before the Common Era (BCE), as the Sangam literature reveals.
This had enabled Tamil to resist Prakritic influences to a significant extent.
Buddhism (both the Mahayana and the Theravada varieties) were also unifiers.
In the period before aggressive Chola Saivism, when Buddhism was a major religion in South India, including Tamil Nadu, many Tamil Buddhist monks, with knowledge of Prakrit and Pali, were closely interacting with Sri Lankan monks and contributing to the corpus of Buddhist literature.
In one of the major pirivenas or Buddhist universities in Hikkaduwa, knowledge of Tamil was considered essential.
Emergence of Sinhala and Tamil identities
As regards the emergence of the Sinhala and the Tamil identities, Indrapala says that these took shape over a long time.
It was not until 1200 Common Era (CE) (another term for AD) that the two communities emerged as distinct ones identified with distinct territories - the Tamils identified with the North and the East, and the Sinhalas with the rest of the island, he says.
The Sinhala identity emerged by the assimilation of various tribal, linguistic and ethnic communities about five to six centuries Before the Common Era (BCE).
By then, long distance trade had brought Prakrit speaking people from North and peninsula India.
By the third century BCE, Buddhist and Jaina monks had come with Buddhism and Pali. These again rode on the backs of traders.
Prakrit became the language of the Sri Lankan elite. And the elite were residing in the urban areas, which were the centres of long distance maritime trade. The elite derived their power and status from such trade.
Gradually, the rest of the community, the hoi polloi, and other linguistic groups, accepted Prakrit.
It soon became the lingua franca in a situation where there were many languages and a common language was needed for better communication.
The Sinhala language, which developed over time, was a mixture of several local languages and Prakrit.
The Tamils of Sri Lanka emerged as a second ethnic group in an evolution parallel to that of the Sinhalas, says Indrapala.
The Tamil identity also emerged as a result of the assimilation of many local linguistic and ethnic groups.
It also owed a great deal to cultural, linguistic and economic influences from Tamil Nadu in South India.
The geographic proximity of the North and East of Sri Lanka to South India had resulted in South India having a greater influence in the Sri Lankan North East than in the South.
"It would appear that the Tamil-speaking traders formed the elite in northern Sri Lanka and their dominance began the process of replacing the local language or languages by Tamil," he says.
With powerful kingdoms emerging in Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan Tamils kept getting cultural, linguistic and political reinforcements from across the Palk Strait from time to time.
This helped the Tamils of the North and East resist assimilation by the Sinhalas in the South, Indrapala says.
"The proximity of northern Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu and the frequent rise of dominant political entities there, reinforced the local Tamil-speaking population in considerable numbers, thus working against the total assimilation of the Tamils into the majority Sinhalese population," he explains.
"The Tamils who lived in the southern parts of the island were assimilated into the Sinhalese population.
This is a process that has continued until modern times," he adds. In a parallel movement, the Sinhala speakers living in the North and East, were assimilated by the dominant Tamil ethnic group.
(P.K. Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)
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