East Sri Lanka, the Tamils and History

| by Dharman Dharmaratnam

( March 06, Colombo,Sri Lanka Guardian) The Eastern Province has a land area of 9,361 square kilometers (3,613 square miles). The Tamils have had a presence in the region that goes back two millenia. Successive post-independence governments in Sri Lanka, backed by hardline Sinhalese nationalists, have attempted to deny the Tamil Hindu character of the region. They have attempted to do so through dubious efforts to distort history. This entails a highly selective read of the Pali and Sinhalese historical chronicles while suppressing the Sanskrit and Tamil literary evidence, the evidence of archeology and the records of outside travelers to the contrary.
This attempt to Sinhalize the East and to give it an exclusively Buddhist historical color is seen in the efforts of the current Percy Mahinda Rajapakse administration. It is a naked attempt to grab Tamil land and to de-Tamilize it using history as one tool of many to legitimize the Sinhalization of the East. There is a veritable industry to roll back the Tamil character of the region.
This article presents some of the rich evidence that demonstrates the centuries old Tamil Hindu presence in the region. The East has been Tamil despite the efforts of independent Sri Lanka to settle Sinhalese peasants through land colonization schemes of dubious economic value.
Early Iron Age
Megalithic urn burials have been excavated in Kathiraveli in the Batticaloa district and north of Nilaveli in the Trincomalee district. This included black and red ware pottery tentatively dated to the 3rd century BCE and iron tools (Sudarshan Senivaratne, The Archeology of the Megalithic Black and Red Ware Complex in Sri Lanka, Ancient Ceylon, 1984). The ethnicity of these people can not be verified but remarkable parallels exist between these urn burials and those excavated in the Kaveri, Ponnaiyar, Tamraparani and Vaigai rivers in Tamil Nadu. Similar sites have been excavated in the Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mannar districts. The Jaffna islands and the Aruvi Aru, Elapat Aru, Modarakam Aru and Kal Aru basins stand out. North Sri Lanka shared the same early iron age culture as did Tamil Nadu. Preliminary evidence suggests that the ‘megalithic culture’ witnessed the introduction of iron, the potters wheel, the plough, rice cultivation and minor tank irrigation.
The Siva temple at Trincomalee known as Koneswaram is of considerable antiquity despite the strenuous efforts of Sinhalese nationalist historians to deny the Tamil Hindu character of the ancient port city. The earliest reference to a Hindu temple is in fact the Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa, where chapter 35, verses 40 to 41, indicate that King Mahasena destroyed three ‘Deva temples’ in Gokarna (Trincomalee), Erakavilla (Eravur?) and in the village of the Brahmin Kalanda to atone for his defiance of orthodox Theravada Buddhism. He reportedly built Buddhist viharas in their place. This was in the 4th century CE.
Gokarna in Sanskrit translates as the “cow’s ear” and signifies a place of Saivite Hindu worship. The place name Gokarna recurs in western Karnataka and in Nepal, where both sites boast of ancient Siva temples! The Buddhist vihara evidentally did not last long if one were to accept the tradition of the Vayu Purana dated to the 4th century CE. Chapter 48, verses 20 to 30, refers to the ‘Siva temple on Trikuta hill on the Eastern coast of Lanka’. While Sinhalese nationalist historians have tried to put a spin on the alleged Buddhist antecedents of Trincomalee, the evidence is clear that the ancient port city of Trincomalee or Gokarna was a Hindu place of worship since antiquity. Further, the Tamil Saivite saint Tiru Gnanasambandar sang of the glories of the Siva temple in Trincomalee in the 7th century. The Nilaveli inscription in the 10th century refers to a land grant made to this temple.
An 8th century Sanskrit inscription was excavated in Tiriyai. The inscription engraved in the South Indian Grantha script, refers to merchant mariners from Tamil Nadu who endowed this Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara and his consort Tara. It was interesting that the inscription was recorded in Sanskrit and not in Pali. Neither was it inscribed in early Sinhalese characters. It relied on the South Indian Grantha script instead. Neither was Thiriyai a Theravada Buddhist sanctuary dominant in Sinhalese history. The Grantha alphabet was used to write Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu and is similar to the contemporary Malayalam script!
The inscriptions dated to the kings Udaya III and Mahinda IV in the 10th century refer to Tamil lands (Demel gam bim) in the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
The Cholas
The Chola interlude in Sri Lanka’s history dated from 993 CE to 1070 CE. This period marked a deepening of the Tamil historical presence in the East. Inscriptions dated to this period refer to a Tamil village in Kantalai called Chatur Vedimangalam. This village, consecrated to the performance of Hindu religious rituals, had a local assembly that administered the community. (S. Gunasingham, Trincomalee Inscription Series, Peradeniya, 1974). Archeological ruins dated to the Chola period have been excavated in Trincomalee, Kantalai and Padavikulam. (S. Pathmanathan, The Kingdom of Jaffna, Colombo, 1978, page 44).
Chola-era inscriptions record the activities of Tamil mercantile communities in Padavikulam (renamed Padavi Siripura in Sinhalese). The mercantile groups referred to were the Ticai Aayirattu Ain Nurruvar (Velupillai, Ceylon Tamil Inscriptions, Peradeniya, 1971) and the Ayyavole. Taniyappan, a mercant from Padavikulam, laid a foundation stone for a Siva temple there. A Tamil inscription by Raja Raja Chola refers to Ravi Kulamanikkeswaram Siva Temple in Padavikulam. (K. Indrapala, Epigraphia Tamilica, Jaffna Archeological Society, 1971 – page 34). A 13th century Sanskrit inscription excavated here mentions a Brahmin village in the area. The paddy fields of Padavikulam were watered by the Per Aru river (renamed Ma Oya in Sinhalese).
The Cholas also expanded a Buddhist shrine, Vilgam Vihara, which they called Raja Raja Perumpalli near Mudalikulam (renamed Moraweva in Sinhalese). Other inscriptions mention a Chola prince – by the name of Lankeshwara Devar who administered Trincomalee.
A 12th century Tamil inscription from Kantalai refers to the Siva temple of Ten Kailasam. (Epigraphia Zeylanica). Another inscription from Palamottai from the Trincomalee district records a monetary endowment to a Hindu temple by a Tamil widow for the merit of her husband. This was administered by a member of the Tamil military caste – the Velaikkarar (Epigraphia Zeylanica, Volume 4, Number 20).
Chola era inscriptions refer to a settlement of the Velaikkarar in Kottiyaaram, known today as Sampur and Mutur. Kottiyaaram was divided into two Chola administrative units i.e. Raja Raja Valanadu and Vikrama Chola Valanadu. (T.N. Subramaniam, South Indian Temple Inscriptions, Madras 1953). These examples prove without doubt that the Trincomalee district had a distinct Tamil Hindu presence in the 11th and 12th centuries, a point denied by the Sinhalese nationalist historians of today who legitimize attempts to suppress evidence of the Tamil historical presence.
The Pali chronicle, the Culavamsa, mentions that King Aggabodhi II built an irrigation tank in Gangatata in the 7th century. Latter day Sinhalese nationalists identify Gangatata with Kantalai but the link is unclear. Tamil literary sources of a later date acribe Kantalai reservoir to Kulakoddan, a Chola prince. The evidence is once again uncertain.

Magha of Kalinga
The invasion of Magha of Kalinga (Orissa) in 1215 CE deepened the Tamil historical presence in the East. Chapter 83 of the Culavamsa refers to Magha’s garrisons in Kottiyaaram, Trincomalee, Kantalai, Kattukulam and Padavikulam. The temple of Tirukovil in the Amparai district was built by Magha (Ceylon Tamil Inscriptions, page 6). Archeological evidence indicates that the Siva temple in Kokkadicholai in the Batticaloa district dated to his time i.e. the 13th century.
The Tamil lands of what is today Amparai and Batticaloa were traditionally divided into several principalities or ‘pattus’. These included Manmunai-pattu, Palukamam-pattu, Natukaatu, Eravur-pattu, Porativu-pattu and Koralaipattu. Pattu in Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam denotes a territorial division consisting of several villages ( T.V. Mahalingham, Administrative and Social Life under the Vijayanagara, P 81). Medieval Tamil texts dated to the 15th and 16th centuries, such as the Mattakalapu Manmiyam, the Konesar Kalvettu and the Dakshina Kailasa Puranam, not to mention the later Mattakalapu Purva Caritram, provide useful insights on the political conditions in what is today the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts in the 13, 14 and 15th centuries. Sinhalese nationalist historians question the historical rigor of such textual evidence but the same critique could then be applied to the traditional Buddhist chronicles in Sri Lanka such as the Mahavamsa, the Culavamsa and the Pujavaliya!
The Vaiya Paadal, a late Tamil historical text dated to the 17th century, refers to the Brahmin Cupatittu who ruled Tiriyai, a Aanasingam who administered Kattukulampattu, a Maamukan who ruled Verukal and Thampalakamam, and a Mayilan who ruled over Kottiyaaram in the 1400s CE. The arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century and of the Dutch in the 17th century led to turbulence in the eastern districts of Ceylon. Many of the old Tamil principalities sought protection from the Kandyan kings. But this does not deny the early Tamil presence in what is today the Eastern Province. Muslims from Sri Lanka’s west coast fled to Kandy to seek protection from the Portuguese and were resettled on lands in what is today Amparai. The Kandyan kingdom was itself a multi ethnic one. The last four kings there were in fact from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu! One Kandyan king built the Siva temple in Thampalakamam in the early 1700s.
While Buddhist remains in the East such as Deeghavapi and Seruvila do exist, these do not detract from the early Tamil association with the region just as the Tamil Hindu historical presence in the deep south of the island does not remove from the Sinhala character of the latter. I have highlighted a few of the many pieces of evidence that proves that the Tamil presence in the East is of considerable antiquity. The Tamils were a clear cut majority in that region until post-independent governments resettled Sinhalese in the region. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism endeavors to suppress the historical evidence, but facts are stubborn. The Tamil Hindu historical claims to the East will not be forfeited regardless of the attempts by Percy Mahinda Rajapakse to transform the ethnic character of that land.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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