Opinion Article

Eezham Thamizh and Tamil Eelam: Understanding the terminologies of identity

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 23 September 2008, 00:43 GMT]
Many readers, Tamils as well as non-Tamils, wonder at the way words and phrases such as Eezham, Thamizh, Eezham Tamil or Eezham Thamizh, Tamil Eelam or Thamizh Eezham, Sinhala, Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan etc., are presented today in the media and the connotations implied by them. Culture Columnist Akazhaan discusses the etymology, historical linguistics and sociolinguistics of these terms in the context of the Tamil and Sinhala national questions in the island known as Sri Lanka today.

Eezham (In MTL transliteration system written as Īḻam):

This word in Tamil stands for the geographical identification of the entire island of what is called Sri Lanka today.

The earliest use of the word, having the Tamil phoneme ZH in it, is found in a Tamil Brahmi inscription as well as in the Changkam literature, both dateable to the dawn of the Christian era.

The Thirupparang-kun'ram inscription in Tamil, found near Madurai in Tamil Nadu and dated on palaeographical grounds to the first century BC, refers to a person as a householder from Eezham (Eezha-kudumpikan).

The Changkam literature Paddinappaalai, assigned to the first century AD, mentions Eezhaththu-u'navu (food stuff coming from the island of Eezham to Kaavirippoom-paddinam, the port of the Cholas).

One of the Changkam Tamil poets is known as Eezhaththu-poothan-theavanaar as well as Mathurai-eezhaththu-poothan theavanaar, meaning the Poothan-theavan (name) either hailing from Eezham or coming from Eezham and settled in Mathurai, the capital of the Pandyas. (Akanaanoo'ru: 88, 231, 307; Ku'runthokai: 189, 360, 343; Natti'nai: 88, 366)

The instances cited above imply that in the earliest available Tamil usages the word Eezham not only stood for the geographical identity of the island but also denoted the ethnic and cultural identity of the Tamils coming from that island, differentiating them from the Tamils of the mainland.

However, in the usages found in the later Tamil literature and inscriptions, the word was widely used not only for the island but also for anyone belonging to that island, irrespective of ethnicity.

Examples: Eezha-ma'ndalam (the region of Eezham), Eezhaththu-arasar (the king of Eezham, it was a reference to Sinhala kings as well); Eezhaththaan (person from Eezham, in one instance it was referring to a general of Parakramabahu, who invaded the Chola country).

The word Eezham is of such an antiquity, its etymological origins are difficult to be ascertained.

The Tamil lexicons (Nika'ndu), Thivaakaram, Pingkalam and Choodaama'ni, dating from c. 8th century AD, equate the word Eezham with Chingka'lam (the Sinhala country) and with gold. Eezhak-kaasu and Eezhak-karung-kaasu are references to coinages found in the medieval inscriptions of Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil inscriptional usages from the Pallava times onwards also link the word with toddy (Eezham), toddy taper's quarters (Eezhach-cheari), tax on toddy tapping (Eezhap-poodchi), a class of toddy tapers (Eezhach-chaan'raan), etc. Eezhavar is a caste of toddy tapers found especially in the southern parts of Kerala today, whom are supposed to be migrants from Eezham.

*    *    *

(In MTL transliteration: Iḷa):

This word, as an adjective (probably a cognate of Eezha), is found in the Brahmi inscriptions and in the Pali chronicles of Sri Lanka, in phrases such as I'la-Barata (the person of the Parathar community of Eezham?), I'la-Naga (the king, whose personal name was Naga of Eezham?)

*    *    *

E'lu / He'la / Seeha'la / Simha'la / Sinhala / Salai / Seiladiba / Serendib / Ceylon
(In MTL transliteration: Eḷu / Heḷa / Sīhaḷa / Simhaḷa / Siṅhaḷa)

Among this group of words, the usage of Seeha'la is the earliest attested by epigraphical evidence. A second or third century AD inscription found at Nagarjunakonda of Andra Pradesh in India refers to a Buddhist monastery as Seeha'la Vihaara (monastery either built by people form Seeha'la or occupied by people from Seeha'la).

Simha'la or Saimha'la are Sanskritized versions found mentioned in inscriptions only after the 4th century AD.

The myth associated with the origins of the word Sinhala, i.e., the children of a lion being the ancestors of Sinhalese, arose much later with the Pali chronicles dating from the fifth century AD.

He'la and E'lu are words found in old Sinhalese language dating from medieval centuries.

The traditional reference to the island of Sri Lanka in the language of the Maldivians is E'lu-dhoo (the equivalent Tamil form is Eezhath-theevu).

The discipline of linguistics and examples found elsewhere may help to understand how not only the words Eezham, I'la, E'lu, He'la, Seeha'la, Simha'la and Sinhala but also the Greek Salai and Seiladiba, the Arab Serendib and the colonial Ceylon are actually cognates.

They all primarily stood for the geographical identity of the island. But the original word, its etymology, its meaning and how that original word became the name of the island under discussion are still elusive to us.

Looking at the words listed above, one may wonder which one first: the softening of ZH into 'L or vice versa? Similarly the initial H / S was dropped to become EE and I, or the latter got added with H / S is another question.

Both ways are possible linguistically. But, Eezha and I'la are the earliest forms available to us, evidenced by objective written records such as the Brahmi inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

The H / S interchange in He'la / Seeha'la and the L / R interchange in Seiladiba and Serendip are other noticeable linguistic features.

It should be noted here that the word Sinhala (Simha'la in Sanskrit and Chingka'lam in Tamil) originally stood for geography and not for any ethnicity or language.

The Tamil literary and inscriptional references to Chingka'lam and Chingka'lath-theevu have to be understood in this sense. The word Chingka'lar was used to indicate people from the island, but the identity is geographical. Throughout North India the word Simha'la and Simha'li are used in the same sense even today. These usages don't mean ethnic or linguistic exclusiveness.

However in the Sri Lankan context, the word Sinhala, which was originally a geographical identity, assumed an ethnic profile ever since the times of the Pali chronicles. The myth of the lion-race was to justify this profile. The word later stood for the linguistic identity as well, with the development of Sinhala language.

*    *    *

Lanka / Ilankai
(In MTL transliteration: Laṅkā / Ilaṅkai;
In TamilNet Transcription: Langkaa / Ilangkai):

The word Lanka simply means any island. It is still widely used by the aborigines of Central and Eastern India to mean an island and especially an islet in a river. The word is considered as belonging to Austro-Asiatic languages. This means it is neither Indo-Aryan nor Dravidian.

The Veddas, the aborigines of Sri Lanka who belong to the Austro-Asiatic stock, might have rendered the name Lanka to the island of our discussion. As it is the biggest island in the South Asian context, Lanka probably became an exclusive term for it.

Strains of this word can also be found in the Maldivian language Dhivehi and in the island names of Maldives.

In Maldivian language, Ahi-lanka means Maldives (probably from Aha-lanka, meaning our islands) and Mahi-lanka means other countries (probably from Mahaa-lanka meaning big islands).

Hilang is a related word in Dhivehi, which means evidence of existence for any land (also consider the Tamil word Nilan for land).

Le, Laa, Li, Lu, Lai, Lang and Lankan are other words found to indicate islands in Maldives. For instance the capital island of the country Male (Maa-le) means the big island. The adjacent small island is called Hulhule (Hu'lu-le).

In Tamil usage the word Lanka (Langkaa) is spelt and pronounced as Ilankai (Ilangkai) right from the times of Changkam literature.

The phoneme I (as in the English word ink) preceding L, is an attribute of Tamil language especially in the context of borrowed words.

Even though the word Ilangkai is found in the Changkam texts Pu'ranaanoo'ru, Chi'rupaa'naattuppadai etc., they don't seem to indicate the island of Sri Lanka. They stood for some other places, such as the capitals of some chieftains, probably surrounded by rivers.

Clear references come from Chilappathikaaram and Ma'nimeakalai belonging to the first half of first millennium AD. It is interesting to note how Chilappathikaaram differentiates the island of Sri Lanka as Kadal-choozh-ilangkai (the Ilangkai surrounded by the sea). Ma'nimeakalai refers to it as Ilangkaa-theevam (Ilangkaa Island).

The specifications in these references have to be understood in the context of the meaning given by the early Tamil lexicons cited above for the word Ilangkai. They all invariably give only one meaning, i.e., an islet in a river (Aattidaik-ku'rai).

Even though the word Ilangkai is widely used in Tamil literature from the times of the devotional hymns and in inscriptions to mean the island of our concern, often we find the specifying term Then-ilangkai (the island in the south), perhaps to differentiate it from the other islands.

Lak-vaesiyaa in Sinhala means an inhabitant of the island of Lanka. Lak-diva in E'lu (old Sinhala) means the island of Lanka. The name Lakkadeevs (Laccadives) for the archipelago in the Arabian Sea (today, a Union Territory of India), lying north of Maldives, which has been sanskritised into Lakshadweeb also need to be considered in this context.

*    *    *

Sri Lanka
(In MTL transliteration: Srī Laṅkā;
pronunced as in TamilNet Transcription: Sree Langkaa)

The coining of the term Sri Lanka is a modern innovation. The prefix Sri in it, which means auspicious, was added to the ancient term Lanka in the 20th century.

The republican constitution of 1972 introduced the phrase as the official name of the country, replacing the name Ceylon, used by the colonial rulers. Since then, Sri Lanka also became the recognized geographical identity of the island. The official identity of citizenship became Sri Lankan.

The 1972 constitution was rejected by majority of Tamils of the island. Their opposition to the constitution was overwhelmingly demonstrated in the Kaankeasanthu'rai by-election of 1975 and in the general elections of 1977.

The term Sri Lanka, associated with the constitution also was seen as a symbol of oppression by the Tamil community of the island. The Sri Lankan identity became a matter of resentment for them, even though they had to officially and internationally compromise with that identity. Perhaps as a way of allowing sentiments, the government continued using the word Ilangkai in the Tamil versions of the official documents.

Even though the word Eezham was always in wide use among the Tamils, its popularity was actually triggered off by the political connotations and stigma attached to the term Sri Lanka in recent times.

In some contemporary media usages the word Sri Lanka is now being used in subtle derogatory sense in certain contexts to indicate the oppressive state in the island.

The 19th and early 20th century migrants from the island, living in Malaysia and Singapore, who are predominantly Tamils, especially from the Jaffna peninsula, retain a Ceylonese identity, some a Jaffnese identity, to differentiate them from the other communities, even though there are some recent efforts by the Sri Lankan government and by some members of this community to introduce the term Sri Lanka.

Terms such as Tamil Canadian or Canadian Tamil are also emerging in recent times in places where the Tamils are predominantly Eezham Tamils.

*    *    *

Thamizh / Tamil
(In MTL transliteration: Tamiḻ):

Just as the word Eezham, the exact etymology and the original shade of meaning of the word Thamizh are not known. They are in fact lost in the antiquity of the word.

The word primarily stood for the language ever since the times of its earliest recorded usage in Tamil sources.

Examples: Thamizh koo'rum nal ulakam (Tholkaappiyam, 3: the good world where Tamil is spoken; in this expression land is identified by the use of language); Thamizh-en ki'lavi (Tholkaappiyam, Ezhuththu, 386: The stanza in this context implies that Thamizh, meaning the language, is the basic word and only its derivates give the other shades of meaning associated with the use of that language); Nal Thamizh muzhuthu a'rithal (Pu'ranaanoo'ru, 50:10: Knowing good Tamil comprehensively); Thamizh kezhu koodal (Pu'ranaanoo'ru, 58:13: The Mathurai city where Tamil flourishes); The word Thamizh also stood for Tamil literature or corpus of literature in that language (Chi'rupaa'naattuppadai, Chilappathikaaram, Ma'nimeakalai, Paripaadal).

From its basic language identity, the word Thamizh manifested into ethnic identity, cultural identity, political identity etc., in the usages of its derivates.

Examples: Then Thamizh aattal (Chilappathikaaram, 27:5: and 27:189: The potentiality of the Tamils); Va'n Thamizh ma'raiyoar (Chilappathikaaram 23: 63: The Tamil Brahmins); Va'n Thamizh Mayakkam (Chilappathikaaram 25:158: in this context it meant war involving Tamils); Tha'n Thamizh Pothu (Pu'ranaanoo'ru 51:5: political unity of Tamils or Tamil rulers); Tha'n Thamizh Che'riththu (Pathittuppaththu 63: 9: in this context gathering Tamil soldiers or Tamil political power); Thamizhk-kizhavar (Pu'ranaanoo'ru 35:2: The Tamil kings); Thamizhk-kooththu, Thamizhk-kooththan (Akanaanooru, 256, 354, 164, Pu'ranaanoo'ru 334: The Tamil dance and dancer); Thamizhp-paavai (Manimeakalai pathikam 25: The Tamil lady, in this context the Kaaviri river); Thamizh Vaiyai (Paripaadal 6:60: The river Vaikai); Thamizh Mathurai (Ma'nimeakalai 25:139: The Mathurai city where Tamil flourished)

The language identity of the word Thamizh also led to the geographical identity of the land where it is spoken.

Examples: Thamizhakam > Thamizh+akam (Pu'ranaanoo'ru 168:18; Akanaanoo'ru 227:14; Chilappathikaaram 3:37; Ma'nimeakali 17:62: The Tamil country); Thamizh Naadu (Chilppathikaaram 10:58; 25:171; 29:13: The Tamil country); Thamizh Varaippu (Pu'ranaanoo'ru 198:12; Chilappathikaaram, Nootkaddurai 2: The Tamil country); Thamizh Varampu (Chilappathikaaram 8:2: the geographical limits of the Tamil speaking world); Thamizh koo'rum nal ulakam, Chen-thamizh nilam, Chen-thamizh chearntha panniru nilam (Tholkaappiyam Paayiram 3; Chol 398; 400: The Tamil speaking world; The Tamil land; The twelve lands of standard Tamil).

One may note that it was from the original language identity Thamizh gained the identities of ethnicity and geography. The latter identities seem crystallized in the times of Chilappathikaaram, which is more or less on par with the times of the Pali chronicles of Sri Lanka that gave the ethnic shade to Sinhala identity.

The difference between the Thamizh identity and the other identities of South Asia also should be noted here: In the case of Thamizh identity it is from language to ethnicity to geography, but all the terms for the other ethnolinguistic identities of South Asia have come the other way round: from geography to ethnicity to language.

Examples: Malayalam: from Malai (hill) > people of the hill country > their language. Kannada: from Karu-naadu (dark-soil country) > Karu-naadar (people of the black-soil country) > their language. Punjabi: (Punch-aab: the country of five rivers) > people of the five-river country > their language. Hindi: (Hindustan: the country beyond the river Indus) > Hindustani (people of the country) > their language. Sindhi: the etymology is same as Hindi, but the name of the same river is taken as Sindhu. Marathi: Mahaa-ratta (the big country) > Marattas (people of the country) > their language. Oriya: (Oddra country) > Oddiyas (people of the country) > their language.

Such a fundamental difference, especially makes it difficult for others to understand the connotations of Thamizh identity. The references of the word Thamizh and its Prakrit / Sanskrit equivalences such as Dameda, Dami'la, Dhami'la, Tramira, Dravida etc., found in the early inscriptions and literature of North India and Sri Lanka with ethnic and geographical shades of meaning, have to be understood in this light.

*    *    *

Eezham Thamizh, Eezhath Thamizh, Eezhath Thamizhar, Thamizh Eezham and Tamil Eelam:

These are phrases often found used in the Tamil and English media of Tamils today. Media of others also sometimes use them.

Eezham Thamizh (noun as well as adjective) is especially used in English media and writings as a phrase standing for the cultural identity of the Tamil speaking people living in Eezham or coming from Eezham or belonging to Eezham by descent (Eezham here is the entire island of what is officially called Sri Lanka).

Examples: Eezham Thamizh or Eezham Tamil (a Tamil speaking person living in Eezham or coming from Eezham or belonging to Eezham by descent) Eezham Thamizh identity, Eezham Thamizh diaspora, Eezham Thamizh history etc. (In such adjective usages the phrase stands for identity, especially the cultural identity of the community, whether in Eezham, abroad or both put together.)

It may look equivalent to the phrase Sri Lankan Tamil but differs subtly by replacing Sri Lanka, a term resented at by Tamils, yet not excluding the whole island perspectives. The concept seems to include the Up Country Tamils and Muslims. Perhaps, the term Sri Lankan Tamil, as its connotations stand now, is being viewed inadequate for this task. But, it is yet to be seen whether such consensus emerges centering around the term Eezham Thamizh.

The term also asserts to the cultural identity of the Tamil speaking people of the island different from that of the Tamils of Tamil Nadu.

However, the coining of this phrase in English will grammatically be inappropriate if rendered in Tamil, without conjunction, and hence can be used only in English. But it seems to be effective in bringing out the concept in English.

Eezhath Thamizh (noun as well as adjective) is invariably used in the Tamil writings, especially to stand for the dialect / dialects, literature, culture etc of the Tamils living in Eezham or coming from Eezham.

Examples: Eezhath Thamizh (language); Eezhath Thamizh ilakkiyam (literature); Eezhath Thamizh pa'npaadu (culture) etc.

The phrase is an equivalent to Ilangkaith Thamizh and was initially popularized by the Tamil media of Tamil Nadu.

Eezhath Thamizhar (noun) is widely used in the Tamil media to stand for the Tamil-speaking people living in Eezham or coming from Eezham or belonging to Eezham by descent.

Example: Eezhath Thamizhar Pa'npaadduk Kazhakam (Cultural Association of the Tamils of Eezham).

The term is an equivalent of Ilangkaith Thamizhar but is avoided perhaps because of the connotations discussed above.

The shades of meanings of the phrases Eezhath Thamizh and Eezhath Thamizhar used in the Tamil media are put together in the phrase Eezham Thamizh used in the English media.

Thamizh Eezham is a geographical as well as political term. It indicates the geographical regions belonging to Tamils in Eezham, the Tamil homeland in Eezham and the political goal of nation state aspired by the Tamils of Eezham. The phonetics of the phrase in written Tamil is always maintained in the Tamil media. Some English media, especially websites and chat systems, also have introduced transcription systems to retain the phonetics of such terms.

Tamil Eelam is the anglicized spelling of Thamizh Eezham.

The phoneme ZH, which is the velar form of L, is difficult for people other than Tamils or Malayalis to pronounce.

Velar means producing sound by the back of the tongue at the soft palate. The back of the tip of the tongue is placed at the base of the teeth to produce ordinary L. The back of the tip of the tongue is placed at the hard palate to produce the sound of retroflex 'L. The lifted tip of the tongue slightly touches the soft palate to produce the sound indicated here by ZH.

நுனி நா அணரி அண்ணம் வருட ரகார ழகார ஆயிரண்டும் பிறக்கும்.
(Nuni naa a'nari a'n'nam varuda rakaara zhakaara aayira'ndum pi'rakkum: Tholkaappiyam, Ezhuththu: 95)

It is now a long convention, starting from colonial times to spell the word Thamizh in English as Tamil, without indicating that the last L is velar.

Similarly the ZH in Eezham was simplified to L, and was written in English as Eelam. But, the ZH was always retained by all political identities and others, who were using the words either Eezham or Thamizh in Tamil writing.

Examples from the early political identities: Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE: Thamizheezha Viduthalaip Pulika'l), Peoples Liberation Front of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE: Thamizheezha Makka'l Viduthalaik Kazhakam), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO: Thamizheezha Viduthalai Iyakkam), Eelam Revolutionary Organization (EROS: Eezhap Puradchi Amaippu) and Eelam People Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF: Eezhamakka'l Puradchikara Viduthalai Munna'ni )

Citations have been made for spelling Tamil Eelam in that way in English since 1924. The TULF in the English version of the Vaddukkoaddai Declaration of 1976 also spelt the phrase as Tamil Eelam.

Thus the spelling Tamil Eelam and using the phrase with its political connotations have become a convention in English / foreign media and in other usages.

*    *    *

ZH or the velar L is a unique phoneme for Dravidian languages, retained only in Tamil and Malayalam today. Telungu and Kannda had it earlier, but lost it in the course of history.

Representing this phoneme in Roman alphabet using the combination of ZH is also a convention from colonial times.

Few other languages such as Arabic also have comparable phonemes that are represented in Roman by ZH. Because of its peculiarity this phoneme is often replaced with another in other languages. In Prakrit, the velar L (ZH) becomes D. Note that the Arabic word for the fasting month is pronounced as Ramzhaan (with the velar L, mostly in Arabic and Tamil), Ramzaan (mostly in anglicized pronunciation) and Ramadaan (in languages such as Urudu and Malay).

The velar L is fast being lost today in northern Tamil Nadu and to some extent in Eezham Tamil.

The Malayalis not only retain it very consciously and proudly in their language, but also insist on writing it in Roman alphabet, using ZH.

If not in political phrases meant for international use, at least in cultural phrases of identity the unique Tamil phoneme needs to be retained in writing as well as in pronunciation and should be shown in the Roman alphabet, is the opinion of some media circles of Tamils.

The Madras University Tamil Lexicon's transliteration system, which is conventionally accepted in academic circles, represents ZH or the velar phoneme under discussion by putting a diacritical line under L, which doesn't confuse reading. Unfortunately such marks, designed for the print media, are not electronic friendly for easy e-transmission.

Structurally, the coining of the terms, their usages, phonetic representations and spelling may reflect the perceptions and inner aspirations of their users. But, many readers point out inconsistencies in non-Tamil media and some are even worried about words being mispronounced by others. They are also worried about mispronounciation conditioning Tamils and the new generation of some diaspora Tamils, which doesn't know Tamil. Perhaps, carefully planned parallel use for sometime may be a way to gradually introduce desired pronunciation to non-Tamil readers and masses as well.

*    *    *
Note: Professor K. Indrapala in his latest book, 'The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity' and Professor Peter Schalk of the Uppsala University in some of his papers have discussed this issue of the words of identity at length. Readers are requested to consult them for further reading.


Latest 15 Reports
04.02.24 15:40   Photo
சியோனிசம் காணும் தோல்வி ஈழத்தமிழருக்குப் பலன் தரவல்ல படிமை மாற்றத்தின் அறிகுறி
24.04.22 05:44  
தீவின் நெருக்கடிச் சூழலில் ஈழத்தமிழர் தேசம் கடைப்பிடிக்கவேண்டிய நிலைப்பாடுகள்
09.04.22 14:44   Photo
குறிதவறும் ஈழத்தமிழர் தலைமைகளுக்கு வரலாறு தருகின்ற எச்சரிக்கை
21.01.22 07:24   Photo
ஈழத்தமிழர் தேசத்தின் தலைமைத்துவம் தேர்தல் அரசியற் கட்சிகளுக்கு அப்பாலானது
02.11.21 15:32   Photo
13 ஆம் சட்டத்திருத்தத்தால் கட்டமைக்கப்பட்ட இன அழிப்பை எதிர்கொள்ள முடியுமா?
15.09.21 08:19  
English version not available
17.05.21 19:23   Photo
Ananthi blames war criminal Silva for blocking collective memorial at Mu'l'livaaykkaal
09.04.21 14:46  
English version not available
23.03.21 12:41   Photo
No focus on Tamil genocide, geopolitics gets played out in Geneva in favour of QUAD formation
21.03.21 13:34   Photo
Navi Pillay explains ‘human rights’ limitations in Geneva on Tamil genocide
15.03.21 20:36   Photo
Deceived Tamil activists in UK falsely claimed ‘substantial changes’ to Zero draft
09.03.21 21:34   Photo
UK repeatedly wronged Tamils says hunger-striker, demands genocide justice
26.02.21 11:53   Photo
Tamils witness false dilemma in Geneva as geopolitical formations pit against each other
19.02.21 14:02   Photo
UK not prepared to push for ICC option in new UNHRC Resolution
07.02.21 23:16   Photo
Unprecedented P2P uprising paves the way for rights-oriented politics of Tamils and Muslims
Find this article at: