Tamils of Sri Lanka: historical roots of Tamil identity

By: Professor S. K. Sitrampalam

The Northeastern Herald will begin serialising this week ‘Tamils of Sri Lanka: The historical roots of Tamil identity,’ by Professor S. K. Sitrampalam, professor of history and dean, faculty of graduate studies, University of Jaffna. It attempts to reconstruct the proto-historic period of Sri Lanka’s history using archaeological evidence.


Commenting on the peopling of Sri Lanka, nearly half a century ago Paranavitana,1 the doyen of Sri Lankan archaeology observed that “ the vast majority of the people who to-day speak Sinhalese or Tamil must ultimately be descended from those autochthonous people of whom we know next to nothing.” However archaeological studies during the last few decades have given solid data regarding pre – and proto-historical phases, which paved the way for the dawn of the historical phase. With regard to pre–history although available data show the presence of early man during the Palaeolithic phase around 125,000 B.P, we are on surer grounds regarding the succeeding phase, both archaeologically and anthropologically.

The beginning of this phase is dated to 34,000 B.P. 2 Besides their tool technology, especially the microliths, the physical make up of early man has now been identified as of the Austroloid group, progenitors of present day Veddas, Yakshas of Pali chronicles and speaking a language belonging to the Austric linguistic group. Besides the many cultural borrowings by succeeding people, their language survives in the names of plants, animals and place names. 3 For instance the terms of rivers with endings such as Oya, and Ganga are of Austric origin.

In the absence of tangible evidence for the presence of the Neolithic phase of pre-history, beginnings of the proto-historic phase is assigned to 900B.C., In archaeological label the culture of this phase is named as Megalithic or Iron Age. Megaliths are termed as tombs built with big stones in natural forms or roughly dressed or even a grave marked with a prodigious rude stone or an excavation in soft rocks containing human remains of the dead. Besides graves without any lithic appendage, but by virtue of certain other cultural traits, especially Black and Red ware and iron, commonly found in other types of Megaliths are also classed as Megaliths. Although the main focus of this culture, is Peninsular India, Sri Lanka is its southern most extension. 4 The Megalithic culture itself has four component elements habitations, burials, rice fields and tanks.

Excavations and researches carried out during the last three decades indicated that it was this culture which laid the foundation for the dawn of civilization in the Island. 5 This has been amply demonstrated in a recent article of Suddharshan Seneviratne, 6 where he made the following observations.

    “Archaeological investigations at Proto-historic habitations and burial sites indicate that Sri Lanka formed the Southern most sector of the broader, Early Iron Age Peninsular Indian techno-cultural complex. The ecofact and artefact assemblages from these sites in Sri Lanka have established that rice-cultivation, animal domestication, the horse, small scale metallurgical operations involving iron and copper, bead production, village settlements, the Megalithic burial ritual, the ceramic industry involving the production of Black and Red ware and Black ware and post firing graffiti symbols were introduced to Sri Lanka from Peninsular, or especially from South India. This chronological context (largely) obtained in the form of radiometric dates, the techno-cultural elements and their region of origin, does not in any way agree with the descriptions of the peopling of Sri Lanka narrated in the middle historic chronicles of Sri Lanka… These Early Iron Age habitats continued throughout the Proto-historic and Early historic transition, and well into the Early historic period. The association of the earliest Brahmi inscription – bearing cave shelters in and around Proto-historic burial as well as habitation sites indicated the continuation of the descendants of the Proto-historic communities into a new cultural milieu”

The above observations sum up the role played by people of the Megalithic culture in the formation of early Sri Lankan Civilization. Besides archaeological data, genetic studies 7 coupled with other linguistic 8, sociological data such as kinship system, caste system 9 and folk religion 10 of the Sinhalese show that it is no longer possible to assert that authors of the Megalithic culture are the descendants of the Mythical Vijaya from North India.

Credit for the actual colonisation of the Island during the Proto-historic phase around 900 BC lies with the people of Megalithic culture who are none other than speakers of Dravidian Languages as in Peninsular India.

In other words what we hear of Elu or proto-Sinhala or Tamil are offshoots of the Megalithic culture as in the case of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam emerging from a common cultural base in Peninsular India. In Sri Lanka people of Megalithic culture together with the pre-historic population namely the Austric language speakers developed Sri Lankan civilization. Their exposure to the outside cultural and other influences would have been the contributory factor for the emergence of civilization in Sri Lanka around 250 B.C. Of these, introduction of Buddhism played a vital role in giving a Sinhala identity. As aptly observed by Susantha Goonetileka 11 “Sinhalisation was fundamentally a cultural process associated with Buddhism and that migration even if it did take place was of a minor kind, so as not to have left a significant trace in the Archaeological data or in demographic terms on population.” In short Sinhalization came after and not before Buddhism.

The evolution of group identities and ideologies associated with social groups represents one of the fascinating areas of historical research. It is also important to note that even in European languages the word race dates only from about the Sixteenth century and that biological definition of the term as denoting a group as distinct from other members of the species by specific physiological characteristics, is of more recent origin. Hence terms such as ‘Aryan’, ‘Dravidian’ to denote racial groups is totally unscientific and can be used only in a linguistic context. The form Tamil, which has an affinity to Sinhala Dameda/Dema!a, Pali Dami!a, Sanskrit Dramida or Dravida, 12 is used in the Sangam literature and Tolkapiyam, the earliest extant grammar of the Tamil language in the context of language, people and the land. 13 It occurs almost contemporaneously in literary and epigraphical sources of Sri Lanka as Dami!a and Dameda respectively. 14

Interestingly the geographical proximity of Sri Lanka to Tamilakam is often reflected in references such as ‘opposite coast’, ‘further coast’ found in Sri Lankan Pali chronicles. However, unlike in the case of India, or Thamilakam or in the case of Tamils of Sri Lanka, our Island has a long history of Buddhist historiographical tradition as embodied in the Pali Chronicles, the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa. These being the works of Buddhist monks naturally enough, were permeated by a strong religious bias, encrusted with miracle and invention. The central theme was the historic role of the Island as a bulwark of the Buddhist Civilization. The reference to Tamils occur in instances where their presence affected the fortunes of the Sinhalese Kingdom. Thus they are depicted not only as people of ‘false faith’ but also as aliens, invaders, usurpers and adventurers. Unfortunately we have no sufficient data from the Sri Lankan Tamil chronicles which are datable to medieval times regarding the early Tamil settlements. Tantalisingly enough Tamil works of South India have no notable allusions to the activities of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.


The earliest reference to Tamil presence in Pali chronicles is narrated in relation to the capture of political power in the ancient Anuradhapura Kingdom by the Dami!as. These chronicles mention only the number of years they have ruled from Anuradhapura, the whole of the Island. In dealing with Tamil rule, one could see at least two views of the Pali chroniclers, namely of the Dipavamsa 15 and Mahavamsa 16 written in the Fourth and Sixth centuries A.D respectively. Dipavamsa refers to them without the slightest indication that their rule was unwelcome.

In dealing with the same events, the Mahavamsa demonstrates a major change of attitude. Here Buddhist ideology is stronger and importantly, it is tied up with racial prejudice. Tamil rule of the Pre-Christian period is viewed as a completely alien factor in the politics of Sri Lanka. Sena and Guttaka are said to have been sons of a mariner trading in horses (assanâvika), emphasizing their foreign origin. 17 As in Dipavamsa, the author of the Mahavamsa while referring to the rule of Sena and Guittaka admitted that they ruled righteously (rajjam dhammçna Kârayum) for twenty two years in the second century B.C. 18 Elara is decribed as a Dami!a who came from the Cola country and ruled for forty four years in Sri Lanka 19 The just and humane nature of Elara’s rule with popular legend is emphasised in the Mahavamsa. Although he was a non Buddhist, he is said to have followed the traditional practice of offering alms to Buddhist monks. He is also credited with repairs of a Buddhist Temple which he had damaged accidentally.

However, the author of Mahavamsa says that Tamils under him desecrated thupas and other places of Buddhist worship. Moreover a sizeable segment of Mahavamsa is devoted to Dutthagamani, who is the hero of the Mahavamsa. Dutthagamani during his campaign in Sri Lanka is said to have fought with Thirty two Tamil Kings. Mahavamsa asserts that Tamils were slain in large numbers. The account of the war is brought to a close with 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. 20 The rest who were non-believers and persons of sinful conduct are likened to beasts. Leaving aside the un-Buddhist nature of this view, here one could see total condemnation of the Tamils.

Thus the Mahavamsa story of Elara – Dutthagamani war makes it fairly clear that this pro – Buddhist, anti – Tamil attitude is super imposed on a situation which did not call for such an attitude. Elara was a patron of Buddhism and was not fighting a Tamil war. Sinhalese generals led his army and so also there were Tamil generals in the army of Dutthagamani. There was also no conceivable difference between troops fighting on the two sides. Dutthagamini’s war was a war of unification twisted to serve an ideology which was perhaps prompted by different circumstances. Moreover Bhalluka is mentioned in the Mahavamsa as a nephew of Elara and landed at Mahatittha with a force of sixty thousand men to help Elara in his battle against Dutthagamani Nevertheless he arrived only on the seventh day after the last rites of Elara were over and Dutthagamani had killed not only Bhalluka but also all his men. 21

Sixty years after Elara there came another invasion in the reign of Vaþþagamani. The Five Tamils rulers who dislodged Vaþþagamani temporarily are referred to as Dami!as who landed at Mahatittha with troops. 22 After dislodging Vattagamani, Tamil rule had lasted for fourteen years and seven months. They are Pulahattha, Bâhiya, Panayamâra, Pilayamâraka and Dâthika (103 –89 B.C). Two Tamils again figure during the rule of queen Anula (48 – 44 B.C) 23 One was Dami!a Vatuka, a foreigner (annâdçsika) who ruled for one year and two months. The other was Dami!a Nilaya, and Mahavamsa calls him as a palace priest ruling for six months only. Thus if we calculate the rule of Tamil kings at Anuradhapura, in terms of years from the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (250 B.C. – 210 B.C.) they have ruled nearly eighty two years, thus making one third of the early historic period ending with the beginning of the Christian Era.

Chulavamsa 24 again mentions Tamil rule in Anuradhapura by the Pandyas for a period of Twenty Seven years. They are Pându (429 – 434 A.D) his son Parinata (434 – 437 A.D) his brother Khudda P~rinda (437 – 452 A.D.) Tiritara (452 A.D.) Dâthiya (452 – 455 AD) and Pithiya (455 A.D.) There is no specific reference in the chronicles either to the faith of these rulers or to the monasteries that benefited by their donations but inscriptions which record these benefactions to Buddhist monasteries afford evidence that they supported the Buddhist religion. 25 They were overthrown by Dhatusena, another hero in the Sinhalese tradition. It was at this time that an anti – Tamil feeling entered Sinhalese nationalism, probably the result of a quarter of a century of Pandyan rule and probably restricted to the clergy. Dissatisfied Princes going to Thamilakam for military support to aspire for Kingship of the Island has also been recorded in Pali chronicles. Before seventh century, only three instances of mercenaries being invited to Sri Lanka are recorded in the chronicles. Each occasion was separated from the other by about two centuries. This practice is first recorded in the reign of Îlanâga (33 – 43 A.D.) who is said to have captured the throne with foreign mercenaries. 26 Two centuries later Abayanaga (231 – 240 A.D brought over Tamil soldiers to fight enemies. 27 Nearly two centuries later Moggallana I (491 – 508 A.D.) returned from India with mercenary troops to capture the throne from his brother Kassapa I. 28

Bibliography (for this excerpt only)

    1. Paranavitana,S., 1959. (ed), History of Ceylon, Vol.I, Part I, (Colombo), p.96.

    2. Deraniyagala,S.U.,1997. Pre and Proto - historic settlements in Sri Lanka, Economic Review, Oct/Nov. 1997. 3. Paranavitana.S., 1959. Op.cit., Chapters II-IV.

    4. Sitrampalam.S.K., 1980. The Megalithic Culture of Sri Lanka, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Pune.

    5. Sitrampalam,S.K., 1988. ‘Proto-historic Sri Lanka – An interdisciplinary Perspective’, Paper presented at the 11th International Conference of Historians of Asia, (Colombo), Sitrampalam,S.K., 2000. ‘Tamils in Ancient Sri Lanka - A Multi disciplinary Perspective’, Prof.S.Vithiananthan Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Jaffna on 16.0.2000.; Sitrampalam,S.K., 2001. ‘Proto-historic Sri Lanka – A Retrospect’ Proceedings of Jaffna Science Association – Ninth Annual Sessions held on April 4–6, University of Jaffna, Thirunelvely.

    6. Seneviratne, Sudharshan, 1996. ‘Peripheral Regions and Marginal communities towards an alternative explanation of early Iron Age material and social formations in Sri Lanka’, Dissent and Ideology, Essays in honour of Romila Thapar, (ed) Champaka Lakshmi .R. and Gopal,S., (Oxford University Press), pp.364-310.

    7. Kirk.R..I., 1976. ‘The legend of Prince Vijaya – A study of Sinhalese Origins’ American Journal of Physical Anthropology,. Vol.40, No.1, pp.91 – 99; Papiha,S.S., Mastana,S.S and Jeyasekara.R., 1996. ‘Genetic variation in Sri Lanka’ Human Biology – Vol.68(5) p.735; Saha.N., 1998, ‘Blood Genetic markers in Sri Lankan populations- Reappraisal of the legend of Prince Vijaya’, American Journal of the Physical Anthropology, 76, pp.217-225.

    8. Gunawardhana,W.F., 1918. The origin of the Sinhalese language (Colombo).

    9. Ryan Bryce, 1953. Caste in Ceylon - the Sinhalese System in Transition (New Jersey) Karunatilaka.P.V.B. 1983 Early Sri Lankan Society – Some reflections on Caste, Social groups and Ranking, The Sri Lanks Journal of Humanities, Vol.IX, Nos. 1&2 1983 (Published in 1986). pp.108-143.

    10. Bechert.H., 1973., ‘The Cult of Skandakumara in the Religious history of South India and Ceylon’, Proceedings of the Third International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, Paris (Pondichery), pp.199-206.

    11. Goonetillake, Susantha, 1980., ‘Sinhalisation: Migration or Cultural Colonialism’, Lanka Guardian, Vol.3, No.1. May 1, 1980, pp.22-29: Vol.3., No.1 May 15, 1980, pp.18-19.

    12.Paranavitana.S., 1970. Inscriptions of Ceylon, Vol.I, Early Brahmi Inscriptions (Colombo), p.LXXXIX-XC.

    13. Zvelebil, Kamil, V., 1987, The term Tamil, Journal of the Institute of the Asian Studies, Vol.4< No.2, March 1987, pp.1-10; Joseph.P.M., The word Dravida International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, Vol.XVIII, No.2 pp.135-136.

    14. Paranavitana.S., 1970. Op.cit.,

    15. Dipavamsa, 1957, 1958 (Tr.,& Ed.) Law,B.C., The Ceylon Historical Journal, Vol.VII, July and October 1957 and January and April 1958 Nos. 1-4.

    16. Mahavamsa, 1950. (Tr., & Ed), Geiger.W. (Colombo).

    17. Mahavamsa., Op.cit., Ch.XXI. v.10-11.

    18. Ibid.,Ch.XXI.v.13-14.

    19. Ibid.,Ch.XXV. v.75.

    20. Ibid., Ch.XXV. vv.109 –111.

    21. Ibid., Ch.XXV. v.v.76-80

    22. Ibid., Ch. XXXIII., vv.55 -61.

    23. Ibid., Ch.XXXIV. vv.18-27.

    24. Culvamsa, Vols. I-II 1973 (Tr & Ed) Geiger,W (Lond) Ch. XXXVIII vv ii. 29-34

    25. Paranavitana.S., Op.cit. 1959. pp.293-294.

    26. Mahavamsa.,Op.cit., Ch.XXXV. v.v.14-45.

    27. Ibid., Ch. XXXVI. vv.45 –53.

    28. Culavamsa.,Op.cit.Ch.XXXIX, v.v.20-22

(To be continued…)

Please Click here to login / register to post your comments.