Opinion Article

Knowledge books mistreat Tamil history

[TamilNet, Thursday, 03 July 2008, 07:34 GMT]
The presentation of the History of Eezham Tamils, in some of the international reference material such as Britannica Concise Encyclopedia and The World Factbook by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has become a matter of serious concern for Tamils all over the world. When the discipline of history itself is being deconstructed in the portals of knowledge of the postmodern era on one hand, these international sources of information are still harping on colonial brand of Orientalism, by basing history on myths.

Many readers have been emailing excerpts from such publications to TamilNet for quite sometime.

Some of the relevant passages are cited below:

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:
“The Sinhalese people are probably the result of aboriginal inhabitants mixing with Indo-Aryans who began migrating from India c. the 5th century BC. The Tamils were later immigrants from Dravidian India, migrating over a period from the early centuries AD to c. 1200. Buddhism was introduced during the 3rd century BC. As Buddhism spread, the Sinhalese kingdom extended its political control over the island but lost it to invaders from southern India in the 10th century. Between 1200 and 1505, Sinhalese power gravitated to southwestern Sri Lanka, while a southern Indian dynasty seized power in the north and established the Tamil kingdom in the 14th century.”

CIA, The World Fact Book:
“The first Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C. probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced in about the mid-third century B.C., and a great civilization developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (kingdom from circa 200 B.C. to circa A.D. 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty established a Tamil kingdom in northern Sri Lanka. The coastal areas of the island were controlled by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century. The island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and was united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into war in 1983. Tens of thousands have died in the ethnic conflict that continues to fester. After two decades of fighting, the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) formalized a cease-fire in February 2002 with Norway brokering peace negotiations. Violence between the LTTE and government forces intensified in 2006 and the government regained control of the Eastern Province in 2007. In January 2008, the government officially withdrew from the ceasefire, and has begun engaging the LTTE in the northern portion of the country.”

The excerpts only show that serious students of History are not involved in the making of such literature and documents cited above.

History is a discipline based on verifiable evidence. Historical interpretations may differ, but there is no academic justification to come out with historical myths serving political purposes.

The motive behind the cited passages is obvious. They are nuanced to deny the Tamil parity in the space and time in the human and cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. They deny the inherent participation of Tamils in the evolution of civilisation in this island.

The historiographical claims of Sinhala-Buddhist exclusiveness, stemming from the Aryan migration theory, have been denounced and countered even by many of the Sinhala historians of high academic standards.

The Sri Lankan state, for reasons well-known, may continue with its exploits with history. But why international reference publishers and Agencies of global ambitions have to lose their credibility by upholding invalidated myths as historical facts?

On such matters of contention, it would have been prudent on the part of the editors, had they consulted the recent publications on the evolution of ethnicities in Sri Lanka by eminent Tamil and Sinhala historians and archaeologists of the calibre of K. Indrapala and Sudharshan Seneviratne, before presenting sensitive profile for world readership.

The facts, views and academic debates arising from recent researches cast an altogether different picture on the topic under discussion:

Satellite image of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, showing the Adam's Bridge reef, a remnant of the land bridge between extreme peninsular India and Sri Lanka. [Satellite Image courtesy: NASA, Visible Earth]
Cētu or Adam's Bridge, linking the Paampan and Mannaar islands of India and Sri Lanka. [Satellite Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
The red loam cliff seen at Kuthiraimalai, which corresponds to the Tēris on the opposite Thirunelveli coast of the Gulf of Mannaar. This is considered as a remnant of the linked landscape of prehistoric times. [Satellite image courtesy: Google Earth and NASA Visible Earth]
An example of a Tēri landscape of red loam and gravel, bearing prehistoric tools in the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu. Vadali-vi'lai. [Photo courtesy www.tn.gov.in]
Ira'naimadu formation. Landscape showing red loam and gravel deposits, bearing prehistoric tools in Ira'naimadu, Ki'linochchi. [Deraniyagala, Photo courtesy: lankalibrary.com]
Prehistoric tools (Microlithic) from Ira'naimadu formation, Ki'linochchi. [Deraniyagala, Illustration courtesy: Lankalibrary.com]
Prehistoric tools (Palaeolithic?), Ira'naimadu formation, ki'linochchi. [Deraniyagala, Illustration courtesy: Lankalibrary.com]
Prehistoric cave site, Beli-lena, Sri Lanka. [Deraniyagala, Photo courtesy: Lankalibrary.com]
Aththirampaakkam. Palaeolithic site near Chennai in Tamil Nadu being excavated. [Photo courtesy: antiquity.ac.uk/projGall]
Prehistoric tool (Palaeolithic) being embedded on a lump of clay. From Aththirampaakkam excavations in Tamil Nadu. [Photo courtesy: antiquity.ac.uk/projGall]
A Megalithic burial monument of the type of Dolmen, Maraiyoor, Kerala. [Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
Remains of a Megalithic burial monument of the type of Dolmen, seen at Kathirave'li, Batticaloa district, Sri Lanka. Such monuments were called Kurakkup-paddadai in old Tamil. (Kurakku means death and Paddadai is enclosure). The site at Kathirave'li is locally called as Kurangkup-padai-vempu (vempu means barren land in Tamil). [Photo courtesy: Early Settlements in Jaffna, 1987]
Megalithic urn burials in Tamil Nadu
Megalithic urn burials, being excavated at Aathichcha-nalloor on the banks of Thaamiravaru'ni river in the Thirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. [Photo courtesy: Frontline, Vol. 20, issue 07]
Megalithic urn burial exposed by sand-scoopers and salvaged in a rescue excavation at Aanaikkoaddai, Jaffna. [Image courtesy: Early Settlements in Jaffna, 1987]
Tamil Brahmi
An example of Tamil Brahmi inscription in Tamil Nadu. [Iravatham Mahadevan, Photo courtesy: Frontline, Vol. 20, issue 07]
An example of Brahmi inscription in Sri Lanka. [Photo courtesy: Ceylon Brahmi Inscriptions]
Pottery inscribed with Brahmi and Grafitti
Pottery inscribed with Brahmi and Grafitti, from the excavations of Anuradhapura. The fragmentary one on top reads '... Tayā - Kuṭe + graffiti symbol'. (somebody's pot) Kuṭe is Prakrit as well as Dravidian. (Kudam in Tamil.) [Illustration courtesy: nibbanam.com]
Graffiti in the first line and Brahmi in the second line. A seal from the Megalithic burial at Aanaikkoaddai, Jaffna. Read from right to left as it is a seal, the Brahmi legend is deciphered as 'Koveta' (Kō-vēt-a), which in Tamil / Dravidian means: the King's. The three components of the word, which are independently meaningful, may correspond to the three graffiti above. This steatite seal was probably a part of a signet ring. [Image courtesy: Early Settlements in Jaffna, 1987]
Sri Lanka was not an island when the first human beings inhabited it. There was a land bridge in the Cetu or Adams Bridge region, linking today’s Tamil Nadu with Sri Lanka, through which animals and humans walked to and fro.

Geological evidences suggest that the land bridge disappeared just five to eight thousand years back. Even afterwards navigational contacts through the shallow waters linked by a chain of sand banks cannot be ruled out, as it was within the means of primitive technology.

The exact time of the first human habitations is yet to ascertained precisely, even though dates have been suggested going back to 70,000 years or more. But an obvious phenomenon repeatedly pointed out in the objective researches starting from 19th century, is the striking affinities between the prehistoric Tēri (red loam and gravel mounds) cultures of the southeastern tip of Tamil Nadu with that of Sri Lanka. (Noons, Zeuner, Deraniyagala and a host of other scholars)

The prehistoric people have not simply disappeared, but it is misleading historiography to link the ‘aboriginal inhabitants’ of Sri Lanka only with the formation of Sinhalese as projected in the Encyclopedia Britannica version. Even though the Veddas are said to be the direct descendants, the genetics and physical anthropology of the said prehistoric strain are at the substratum of every native ethnicity in Sri Lanka and the ethnicities on the other side of the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannaar too.

This is a common anthropological heritage not only to Sinhalese, Eezham Tamils and a large majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka, but also to the Hill Country Tamils of Sri Lanka, for they have come in the 19th century from the same region of Tamil Nadu and through the same route of that of the prehistoric people.

The culture that marked the phase between the end of prehistory and the beginning of history (appearance of readable written documents) in the island of Sri Lanka is what has been termed today as the Megalithic Culture.

In the Sri Lankan context it began around the early centuries of the first millennium BCE and continued to the dawn of the Common Era, overlapping in its later stages with the advent of Buddhism and appearance of phonetic writing.

Recent researches have shown the wide prevalence of this culture in the length and breadth of the island. The scholarly perception today is that it was the Megalithic Culture that was at the genesis of urbanization, civilization and the rise of states in Sri Lanka.

Kantarodai in the north, Anuradhapura in the centre and Mahagama in the south were some of the first urban centres, (Vimala Begley, Allchin, Kennady, Coningham, SPF Seneratne, Deraniyagala, Sudharshan Seneviratne, Indrapala, Sitrampalam and Ragupathy)

It is an established archaeological fact that the Megalithic Culture is predominantly a South Indian phenomenon of the first millennium BCE. Its prevalence, and absence of any other cultural trait in Sri Lanka before the advent of Buddhism, makes it difficult to perceive the so-called Indo-Aryan mass migration directly from North India, bringing Sinhala people to the island.

Indo-Aryan and Dravidian are rather linguistic terms in connotations and it is misleading to use them to people of that times who left us with no objective evidence of the language or languages they spoke.

The arrival of Buddhism in mid third century BCE, by the efforts of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka is a historical fact. Written evidences in the form of Brahmi inscriptions, providing the first objective information on the ethnicities of Sri Lanka, also appear around the same time.

The alphabet of these Brahmi inscriptions has both traits: Tamil Brahmi as well as Asokan Brahmi. The language of these inscriptions is largely Prakrit, intermixed with Dravidian terms. Sinhalese at this stage was yet to evolve as an identifiable language.

The genetic relationship between the Prakrits of India and Proto-Dravidian is another area that is yet to receive satisfactory attention from scholars.

There is no mention of the word Sinhala or Sinhala ethnicity in the thousand odd short inscriptions that come to us from this time. On the contrary, a vast majority of the host of clan names and titles that we come across in these inscriptions only show affinities with the clans of the ancient Tamil country (Sudharshan Seneviratne and Indrapala).

There are also instances in these inscriptions where individuals identified themselves as Tamils, made donations to the Buddhist order.

What is inferred is that the people who eventually identified themselves as Sinhala have not come from any distant land. They largely belonged to the same substratum of the people of the neighbouring peninsular India, shared similar cultural sequences and gradually evolved into a distinct ethnicity, similar to that of the ethno linguistic identities next to them.

The continued popularity of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, even when it disappeared in peninsular India and the resultant influence of Pali, which is one of the Prakrits, rendered a different hue to the Sinhala-Buddhist formation.

A definable Sinhala-Buddhist identity along with its associated myths appear for the first time only in the Pali chronicles, Dīpavaṅsa and Mahāvaṅsa, dateable to 4th-5th century CE. Even such a literature, which projects Tamils as invaders, could not help linking the Pandyas of southern Tamil country in the genesis of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

The mythical hero of the chronicles and his associates, said to have come from an unidentified location of the sub-continent, brought wives from the Pandyan country and the descendants were the Sinhalese.

The historical projections of these Buddhist chronicles; compelled by their sectarian needs, loaded with myths and talking of events several centuries prior to their compilations need to be carefully screened before considering them for the writing of objective history.

The earliest written forms of Sinhala, i.e., Sīyaḷa and Sīhaḷa are rather geographical than ethnic when they first appear in the inscriptions outside of Sri Lanka in the early centuries CE. A little earlier, at the dawn of the Common Era, the word Eezham appear, again outside of Sri Lanka in a Tamil Brahmi inscription and in the Changkam literature.

Sīhaḷa, Sīyaḷa, Eezha, Iḷa, Eḷu and Hela seem to be early geographical terms of the island. Maldivians traditionally referred to Sri Lanka as Eḷu-dhoo-karaa (the land of Eḷu island). Lanka is another geographical term, which simply meant island, probably in aborigine language.

The geographical terms, which in attributed sense stood for anyone who belonged to the island, came to be viewed as exclusive ethnic terms with the polarization of identities. While Eezham became popular with Tamils for the geographical identity, Sinhala became the ethnic identity of the Sinhalese.

The Tamil identity is peculiar in this respect, by basing itself on language and not confining to the general pattern of South Asia where geography is the basis for the ethno linguistic identities.

What is seen from the evidences is that the Eezham Tamil identity of Sri Lanka was not only parallel to the Sinhala identity but also parallel to that of the Tamils of Tamil Nadu.

It is not merely an extension of the Tamil identity of Tamil Nadu. The Eezham Tamil social formation is an evolution and is a result of people interacting with the land of Sri Lanka throughout its phases of history.

A person who caused the writing of a Tamil Brahmi inscription, dateable to the dawn of the Common Era, at Thirupparangkun’ram in Tamil Nadu styled himself as Eezha Kudumpikan (the house-holder from Eezham). Another, a poet of the Changkam literature also was titled as Eezhaththu Poothan Theavanaar (the Poothan Theavan of Eezham). The need for these Tamils to assert to their Eezham identity in Tamil Nadu is significant in perceiving the parallel development.

The Eezham Tamil formation was an active partner in the affairs of the state, economy and culture of the island throughout its history. Among the rulers of Sri Lanka there were some Tamils and many with Tamil connections. There were Tamil generals on the side of the Sinhala rulers who fought against invasions and imperial rule of the South Indian dynasties.

Historical developments eventually led the Eezham Tamil formation and the Sinhala formation to polarize separate geographical regions for them and to have separate kingdoms after 13th century CE. There are no evidences that they either waged war or competed on ethnic grounds during this phase. Confrontations were feudal but not cultural.

Tamil and Saivism received patronage even in the Sinhalese kingdoms without any animosity. The king of Kotte, Bhuvanehabahu VII, signed the treaty with the Portuguese in Tamil. At the fall of the last kingdom of Kandy to the British, one of the Kandian Chieftains, Ratwatta Disawa, the ancestor of Srimao Bandaranayake, signed the treaty in Tamil.

Modern concepts of nationalism based on language, religion, ethnicity etc have come to us especially through British colonialism.

History, which was evolved as a modern academic discipline in the 19th century Europe to become a handmaid of nationalism and imperialism also was introduced to us by this time.

The colonial Orientalist scholars, who were enthusiastic to invent Indo-Aryan cousins in this part of the world, created enough myths in that process for Brahminism in India and Sinhala-Buddhist elitism in Sri Lanka.

The partiality in historiography brought in new social gaps, confrontations and competition.

It should be noted that none of those Orientalist scholars who translated and brought to light the Sanskrit texts and Buddhist cannons ever attempted to do the same to the Tamil texts. The ancient Tamil texts had to wait for Tamil scholars like Arumuga Navalar, Thamotharam Pillai and Saminathaiyar to see the light of publication. They still wait for a comprehensive translation.

The Tamil and Sinhala formations would have been understood by each other and by outsiders in a better sense, had culture studies been comparative than divisive. An example is that even today we don’t have a comparative etymological dictionary between Tamil and Sinhala. The combination of Orientalism and nationalism in Sri Lanka chose the path of being exclusive than inclusive.

The combined result of the forces at work was the mischievous oversimplification of Sri Lankan History that the Sinhalese are Indo-Aryans who came from North India in the 6th century BCE and the Dravidian Tamils are later migrants who came as invaders, traders and mercenaries to snatch a part of the promised land of the Sinhalese away.

For that matter, late Tamil and Malayalee migrants can be found more among the Sinhalese, especially among their elite, as was with the case of the ancestors of the Bandaranayake and Jeyawardane families (James T. Rutnam).

To conclude in the words of a noted Sri Lankan historian, Prof. Leslie Gunawardana:

“It is important to note that the Aryan theory was not merely something imposed from above by Orientalist scholars. It was eagerly welcomed by most Sinhala scholars who found the Aryan theory flattering in that it elevated them to the ranks of the kinsmen of their rulers” (Colonialism, Ethnicity and the Construction of the Past, 1994)



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