THE TAMIL LANGUAGE IN SRI LANKA Part 1
Posted on February 5th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

According to historian Sirima Kiribamune, the earliest Tamil inscription found in Sri Lanka is dated to the end of 10 century, immediately preceding the Cola conquest of the island.  It records a donation to a Hindu shrine. (ICES Ethnic studies Reports 4/1 1986 p 14) There is not a single Tamil inscription before the 10th century, she said.

This fits in with historian K. Indrapala’s conclusion in his PhD thesis Dravidian settlements in Ceylon” (1965) that there were no Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka before the 10 century. These Tamil settlements of the 10 century and after, would have been residual settlements of the Chola occupation of the Rajarata which took place from 985 AD to 1070 AD.

Chola rule in Sri Lanka was limited to the Rajarata region. Cholas were prevented from coming lower down by the Sinhala king, who throughout Chola rule was active in the south, planning the rout of the Cholas. Cholas controlled two important ports, Mantota and Trincomalee. These two ports were very important for the Cholas. Trincomalee looked out on the Bay of Bengal and faced Burma and South East Asia.  It had a current which took ships to Burma and Indonesia very fast.  The Cholas did not have a port to match Trincomalee.

Historians think that the Chola conquest of Sri Lanka was primarily to get access to the valuable international east-west trade route using Mantota and Trincomalee. The East-West trade route, which started in the Arabian Sea, ran down the north-western and south-western seaboard of India (present-day Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala) and ended at Mantota in western Sri Lanka. The Tamil kingdom, lying on the south-east of India was completely outside this trade route.

During Chola rule, Rajarata was administered in Tamil. When the Sinhala king overthrew the Colas, he threw out the Tamil language as well. Tamil was not permitted to take root in  Sri Lanka. There is only one Tamil inscription dated to Parakrama bahu I and that was for the benefit of south Indian traders who called at the port of Uratturai, (Kayts). Kings who came after Parakrama bahu I did not issue inscriptions in Tamil. All inscriptions were in Sinhala.

However, about two hundred Tamil inscription belonging to the period    11 -16 century have been discovered in various parts of Sri Lanka, said epigraphist Malini Dias,     A few inscriptions were edited and published by  Senerat Paranavitana and  A Velupillai in Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol 6. Other Tamil inscriptions were edited and published elsewhere by historians such as S Pathmanathan and K Indrapala.

There is no single collection of all these Tamil inscriptions.  Inscriptions were described, sporadically in research journals. I recall reading one many years ago. The analysis started proudly, with a lengthy description of the appearance of the inscription. It ended with the abrupt announcement that the inscription was too worn to be read! I think it was published in the University of Ceylon Review, but I may be wrong.

Most of these Tamil inscriptions are on endowments to Hindu temples. Some are dated to Chola rule,   with special mention of Raja Raja Cola (985 – 1014 AD) and Rajendra Cola 1 (1012–1044 AD).  Two inscriptions at least, refer to endowments to Thirukeetheswaram temple in Mantota. There is also an inscription dated to Rajendra Cola 1 which refers to the establishment of a Visnu temple in   Anuradhapura.

The Kotagama inscription refers to Ariyachakravarti’s victory over the Gampola king.  It is dated to 1344. A Tamil inscription dated to around 1433 AD, grants lands including Naimanne in Matara to Upulvan device. A Tamil pillar inscription set up in time of Vijayabahu VI (1513- 21) refers to the building of a kovil in Kotte kingdom by one Kumaran Nayan.

Much prominence has been given to the ‘Tamil inscription’ in the Trilingual slab found in Galle. This Trilingual slab was brought from China and left in Galle in 1409 by Chinese admiral Cheng Ho. Tamil historians in Sri Lanka have had great difficulty in reading this so-called Tamil inscription.  ‘This inscription is of a unique kind. There is no similar record in the whole range of Tamil inscriptions,’ they said. The language and orthography show characteristics which are not found in any other Tamil inscription, they continued.   The word ‘Manittar’ found in the inscription is not found in Tamil.

That is not surprising. The tablet found in Galle is not in Tamil. It is in Malayalam. These tablets were prepared in China. The Chinese placed them in the ports visited by them, on the east-west trade routes. Tamilnadu was not on the East-West trade route. Cheng Ho did not go there. It is most unlikely that China would have bothered to prepare an inscription in Tamil. Kerala was on the East-West route and there is a similar tablet in Kerala.

Jaffna was initially, Sinhala speaking. Jaffna was populated by Sinhalese in the ancient and medieval period. The evidence is still there in cattle branding and in place names.  Historian P.A.T. Gunasinghe says that the place names of Jaffna only make sense if they are seen as translations of Sinhala names. He points out that ‘vil” means ‘bow,’ and ‘pay’ means ‘net’ in Tamil. Therefore names like Kokuvil and Manipay only make sense when they are seen as the Tamilisation of the Sinhala words Kokavila and Mampe. Valikamam and Vimankam are meaningless in Tamil, but make sense if the villages originally bore the Sinhala names of Valigama and Vimangama. Some place names like Polvattai refer to the Sinhala used in 14th century.

Jaffna Peninsula was conquered by the Tamil speaking Pandya kings in the 13 century and then by the Vijayanagara kingdom of Karnakata in the 14th century. Jaffna seems to have stuck to Tamil and avoided the Telegu favoured by the Vijayanagara regime. The Catholic priests, who went to Jaffna after the Portuguese invaded and took over Jaffna in the 16 century, had preached the Catholic faith in Tamil.

Fr. Emerzan Ragel, writing a tutorial for the Ampitiya Seminary in 2015, referred to Fr. Henry Henriques, probably the first European to master Tamil. He had composed several Tamil books including a Tamil grammar. One of his books has been found in the National Library, Lisbon.  Fr Ragel also mentions a Jesuit priest writing about church service in Vaddukoddai, saying on Saturdays, the vespers, litany, salve, are sung in Tamil”. Fr Ragel has not provided references for these statements. Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez who came to Sri Lanka later, in 1705 knew Tamil and wrote many hymns and prayers in Tamil. This is well known.

The Udarata kingdom (1469-1815) worked primarily in Sinhala. There is no evidence to show that the Tamil language was used in the Udarata kingdom. The Nayakkar kings of the Udarata kingdom, who ruled from 1739- 1815 were known in the Udarata as ‘Andhras’ because their descendants came from Andhra Pradesh. They seem to have used both Tamil and Telegu in their private conversations.    Their correspondence with India seems to have been in Telegu.

Udarata would have used Telegu for trade transactions as well.  The leading south Indian traders coming into the Udarata kingdom at Kalpitiya were from the Telegu speaking kingdom of Golconda (in present-day Andhra Pradesh). Golconda had the biggest ships. In contrast, the ships of the Tamil traders coming into Kalpitiya were small in size, and less in number.

However, historian K.W. Goonewardena has provided two instances of the use of Tamil in the Udarata period.    Goonewardena said that Dumbara Rala, an important Disawe of the Udarata kingdom had sent a letter in Tamil to the Dutch Governor.  Goonewardena also noted in the same essay, that in the time of Dutch Governor Van Gollenesse(1743-1751)  it had been recorded that from  Negombo to Jaffna only Tamil was spoken. (KW Goonewardena.  An accession of Sri Vijaya.   RASSL Journal. 1995 p 462.)

Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) was a Danish specialist on languages. In 1816, Rask left Denmark to learn about languages in the East and to obtain manuscripts for the Royal Library, Copenhagen. He went to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Persia,   India and then Ceylon. Godakumbura says that Rask learnt Sinhala in the three months he stayed in Madras. From Madras Rask arrived in Jaffna in November 1821 and learned Sinhala from C.E.Layard, the CCS officer stationed there, using the Sinhala version of the New Testament of the Bible. He came down to Colombo and collected   Sinhala manuscripts to take back to Denmark. There is no mention of Tamil.

The fact that Rask did not study Tamil, though he was in Madras and Jaffna, indicates that Tamil did not have a high position at the time. The South Asian collection of the Royal Library, Copenhagen, today has 1127 manuscripts in Sanskrit, 310 in Pali, 169 in Sinhalese, 97 in Tamil, and 13 in Urdu.  It has 2640 printed books in Sanskrit, 860 in Hindi, 690 in Urdu and 180 in Sinhalese. There is no mention of Tamil.

By the end of the 14 century, Tamil had lost its dominant position even in its own country. Around 1364, the Tamil kingdom in South India was conquered by the Vijayanagara kingdom of Karnataka.  Tamil kingdom was thereafter administered by Vijayanagara officials from present-day Andhra Pradesh.  Tamil was displaced by Telegu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. The kingdom was thereafter administered in Telegu.

The Tamil kingdom later splintered into small, weak kingdoms, known as the kingdoms of Madura, Trichinopoly, and Tanjore, with Madura going under the Muslim Nawab of Arcot in 1734.  Telegu continued to dominate. There was a Telegu literature in Madras in the 19th century and the British rulers recognized Telegu. Telegu manuscripts numbering 3335 collected during British rule were sent to Hyderabad in 1960.

The  Tamil language was rescued and elevated by the Christian missionaries who arrived in Tamilnadu from the 17th century onwards. They had to learn Tamil to convert the natives to Christianity and in the process, they helped to revive Tamil language and literature.

The leading personalities in this were two Italian Jesuit priests, Roberto de Nobili (1606-1656) and Constanzo Beschi (1680-1742) also German Lutheran priest B. Ziegenbalg (1682-1719). They collected Tamil manuscripts,   made translations and compiled grammars. G.U.Pope (1830- 1857) a Wesleyan priest, translated many Tamil texts into English and British Civil Servant F.W.Ellis (1810-1819) made a large collection of Tamil manuscripts.  Rev. P.Percival (Wesleyan, then Anglican) was appointed the first Professor of Vernacular Literature at Madras University in 1857. He knew both Tamil and Telegu. Rev. Robert Caldwell introduced the notion of a separate group of Dravidian languages in his  ‘A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages, ‘(1856). ( continued)

One Response to “THE TAMIL LANGUAGE IN SRI LANKA Part 1”

  1. Christie Says:

    I have come across Tamils from all over the world. They are the same. All of them outside India are Parasites who went on the back of the British.

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