Who is the indigenous Sri Lankan?
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 Sinhalese the only indigenous people or the
first to arrive in the island? In other words, are the Tamils outsiders
or later entrants?
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 Sinhalese 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 Sinhalese declared that they were indigenous to the
island, and that the Tamils were invaders from South India.
They said, that the Sinhalese 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 Sinhalese who lived
in the rest of the island.
But renowned Sri Lankan historians and archaeologists like K
Indrapala, Sriyan Deraniyagala, Leslie Gunawardena and Sudarshan
Seneviratne, contend that Sri Lanka has been multi-ethnic and
multi-cultural from prehistoric times.
They add that both the Sinhalese 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
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. 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
Sinhalese 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
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 Sinhalese 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
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
However, there was a basic continuity in the population as such.
There was a "biological continuum" right through history, Indrapala
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 Sinhalese
very much and the Tamils not so much. But both were significantly
affected giving rise to critical commonalities.
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 Sanskrit 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.
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
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 Sinhalese 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
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 Sinhalese, 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
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 Sinhalese 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