Posted on February 15th, 2019


The State Council had decided in 1944 that when Ceylon became independent, both Sinhala and Tamil would be declared the national languages. There would be parity.  Therefore the National anthem also had to be in Sinhala and Tamil.

The song selected as the national anthem, Namo Namo Matha was in Sinhala.   Premier D.S Senanayake proposed that a suitable Tamil translation  be formally adopted. The select committee headed by Sir E.A.P Wijeratne had accepted in principle that there be a Tamil version of the national anthem. The Tamil scholar, Pundit M. Nallathamby, was entrusted this task and a  translation was done said one source. There had been a competition to select the best Tamil translation of the Namo Namo Matha in 1950 and Nallathamby had won it said another. Anyway, Prof K. Sivathamby    confirmed that the Tamil translation was composed by Nallathamby.

The Tamil version of the National anthem had it’s debut at the 1949 independence ceremony. The printed programme for the 1949 independence celebrations, which  archivist Haris de Silva   had seen,  had said that at the inauguration of the Independence Memorial Building at Torrington Square, the National Song would be sung in Tamil at 4 p.m on the arrival of the Prime Minister, and in Sinhala at 5 p.m. immediately after the Drill Display.

During the 1950 independence celebrations, at the morning event at Galle Face, the first bars of the National Anthem were played at the march-past. At the evening event at the Havelock Race Course, celebrations commenced with the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil, and concluded with the anthem sung in Sinhala. In 1950, the High Commission in India had requested copies of the national anthem in Sinhala, Tamil, and English, along with the musical scores. Copies had been sent to India, said Haris de Silva.

Haris de Silva states that Oliver Goonetilleke, then Minister in-charge of Home Affairs   had submitted a cabinet memorandum dated 22.11.1951 recommending Namo Namo Matha     as the national anthem. In this memorandum Oliver Goonetilleke stated that ‘Namo namo matha’ had been sung in Sinhala and Tamil at the independence celebrations.

He attached the Tamil translation.  Cabinet wanted a ‘competent authority’ to revise the Tamil translation. This was done by K. Kanagaratnam, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education  Cabinet  also wanted Sir Oliver to consult G.G. Ponnambalam, who had nothing to say on the matter.

The Cabinet gave its approval to the anthem on 11th March 1952.  A Press Communique was issued on 12th March 1952, saying that the Cabinet had approved the song Namo Namo Matha as the National Anthem, with copies of the approved Sinhala version, and its Tamil and English translations, together with the musical scores. The Tamil translation was the one by Kanagaratnam, and the English translation was that of Kannangara, said Haris.

D.B.S Jeyaraj says on March 12, 1952, the Government published huge advertisements in the Sinhala, Tamil, and English newspapers announcing that Namo Namo Matha” was the National Anthem. While words in Sinhala and Tamil were published in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers respectively the English newspapers had Sinhala words written in English.

According to D.B.S. Jeyaraj, the Tamil version Namo Namo Thaye” was   sung in 1952 at Independence Day functions at Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Kachcheries. The Tamil version was also sung when Sir John Kotelawela visited Jaffna in 1954.

The firm Cargills”, then agents for HMV Records, was given the order to make records of the National Anthem.  The Blind School rendition, with Army Band playing, was recorded on HMV in 1954. Jeyaraj says when a record was made of the national anthem, a disc was also cut for the Tamil version. The melody and music was the same as that of the Sinhala version. The Tamil words were sung by two women singers, Sangari and Meena. The Tamil version was first broadcast officially on Radio Ceylon” on February 4, 1955. Sri Lanka Thaaye, the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan national anthem, is an exact translation of the Sinhala version, said Wikipedia.

Then in 1978, the National Anthem was included in the new Constitution. The 1978 Constitution (Article 7) states: “The National Anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be “Sri Lanka Matha,”, the words and music of which are set out in the Third Schedule. It was observed that the Tamil translation of the 1978 Constitution has the national anthem in Tamil. Haris de Silva stated that this Tamil version was the Kanagaratnam translation. The Tamil version was included, said one source, following an appeal by K.W.Devanayagam. Devanayagam had pointed out that Muslims and Tamils living in the north and east who spoke mostly Tamil wanted that version for use in schools and  for occasions.

The Sinhala version of the anthem is used at official/state events but the Tamil version is used at official events held in the Tamil speaking regions in the North and East of Sri Lanka, said Wikipedia. The Tamil version is also sung at Tamil medium schools throughout the country. The Tamil version was used even during the period when Sinhala was the only official language of the country (1956–87. (Wikipedia)

While the Sinhala version was sung in most official functions in Colombo and Sinhala majority provinces, the Tamil version was sung in Tamil majority areas and Tamil medium schools, confirmed DBS Jeyaraj. This accommodative attitude was displayed even after Sinhala was made the sole official language and Tamil had no official status at all. The Tamil version had been played at functions attended by Tamils in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. The Sinhala version was played at functions attended by the Sinhala community, However when both parties attended, they avoided the national anthem and only played the tune.

There was a sharp difference of opinion regarding singing the national anthem in Tamil. Sinhala hardliners do not want the National Anthem to be sung in Tamil while Tamil hardliners do not want Tamils to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala, observed Jeyaraj. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had walked out of a function in the north where the national anthem was played in Tamil.  This would have probably been in her  two terms of office 1960-65 or 1970-77.

The National anthem was sung in Sinhala and Tamil at the 50th anniversary independence celebrations in Trincomalee in 1998. Is this legal asked critics. On Sinhala New Year day 1999 at a ceremony in Kantalai they had sung it simultaneously in Sinhala and Tamil. This was been scoffed at. Where in the world do we hear national anthems being sung in different languages asked one reader.

In December 2010 the Cabinet decided that Sri Lanka’s national anthem would only be in Sinhala. The Tamil version would no longer be played at any official or state functions. A directive to use only the Sinhala version was to be sent out by the Ministry of Public Administration. All government establishments including district secretariats will be called upon to adhere to this decision.

President Rajapaksa said there could not be two national anthems in a country. This position should be corrected. He said, “We must think of Sri Lanka as one country.” The national anthem should be a ‘national anthem’ not a communal anthem, added a critic. Sri Lanka need not take the new nations such as Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as examples.

According to Jeyaraj, this ban on singing the national anthem in Tamilwas thereafter shelved” but orders however went out quietly to government. Officials and officers of the armed forces that the national anthem should not be sung in Tamil. There was no official decree but officially sanctioned unofficial instructions resulted in the silencing the Tamil National Anthem, said Jeyaraj.

This unofficial diktat was strictly enforced. Schools and government institutions were discouraged” from singing the national anthem in Tamil. The armed forces in the North and East were tasked with the duty of preventing the National Anthem being sung in Tamil. The Tamil people soon got the message and gave up attempts to sing the National Anthem in Tamil. School children were compelled to sing the Sinhala words scripted in Tamil, said Jeyaraj

At three different functions at Kilinochchi, in 2010 army had stopped the singing of Tamil version. They ordered that the recorded Sinhala version be played and it was. They had also distributed the Sinhala version of the national anthem to schools and told them that in future they should play the Sinhala version, reported the media.

The pro-Tamil Yahapalana government of 2015 changed this. President Sirisena withdrew the prohibition on singing the national anthem in Tamil.  In March 2015 President Maithripala     announced that there would be no bar to singing the national anthem in Tamil.

Soon after, on March 23  2015  at  a function  in Valalai in the Jaffna peninsula to return land taken over by the Sri Lankan armed forces to maintain a high security zone, the national anthem was first sung in Tamil and then in Sinhala. The music was played on tape while a choir from the staff of the Jaffna District Secretariat sang in both languages. This was in the presence of President Maitripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga,

There were protests. Permitting the national anthem to be sung in Sinhala and Tamil, as President Sirisena had done may be a violation of the constitution, said Ladduwahetty. According to Article 7 of the 1978 Constitution the national anthem cannot deviate from the words and music given in the schedule, and the words, are the Sinhala words. The national anthem must be sung in Sinhala at state and national functions. Article 7 enshrining the national anthem is a fundamental article which cannot be amended, repealed or tampered with, said Vernon Botejue.

Despite this, the national anthem was sung in Tamil at the Independence Day proceedings in Colombo in 2016, 2017,  2018 and  It was sung at the end of the proceedings when many were getting ready to leave. Some greeted this gesture positively. The singing of the national anthem in Tamil was a gesture of reconciliation. It was a very significant act of the government to make the Tamils feel equal, said the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.  Others added, now Sri Lanka had joined South Africa, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and Fiji as a country having two national anthems.  Tamil separatists disagreed. ‘If Tamils thought that they had gained a status on par with the majority race they are wrong. Their relegation to second class was shown by the fact that the Tamil anthem was sung later at the ceremony, said one analyst.

There was much comment when the National anthem was  sung in Tamil at the end of the Independence Day proceedings on 4.2.2016.  This surprised many people,    said Jehan Perera. The last time it was sung in Tamil was at national day event in 1949 . In Hambantota they did not like  this. Some did not even know that Tamil was a national language. It came as a shock them. The Tamil version was an exact translation of the  Sinhala one and sung to the same tune, said Perera.

Immediately after the 2016 event, the singing of the national anthem was challenged in Supreme Court as a violation of the constitution. A fundamental rights petition challenging the government decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil was filed. It should be sung only in Sinhala.

It is clear that there are two opposing sets of views on the matter of the Tamil anthem. One group firmly wants to see the anthem sung only in Sinhala. It is imperative to sing the national anthem in one voice not two, they said. The text of a national anthem and the way it is set to music is more an expression of patriotic fervour than a literary composition. The Sinhala national anthem is composed with due regard to the auspicious nature of the words. A national anthem is a symbol of unity.  These  critics dismiss the notion that Tamils cannot think of themselves as Sri Lankan when the national anthem is in a language that they cannot understand,

Why can’t the Tamils learn to sing the national anthem in Sinhala, asked one critic. If they are able to learn other language in the countries they live in now, why can’t they learn Sinhala? They do not ask that the national anthem of the countries they now live in be translated to Tamil so they can sing it with fervor and loyalty.

There was no demand from any Tamil in Jaffna to sing the National anthem in Tamils. It was not an issue, said Rear admiral Sarath Weerasekera. When I was the commanding officer of the Karaingar naval base in 1993 Tamils sang it in Sinhala at various functions.  Today the north is ‘all Tamil,’ and they have with all impunity sung the national anthem in Tamil.

These critics point to India. In India the national anthem is sung in only one language, Bengali.   It is not even in Hindi. It does not contain any Tamil words or stanzas.   But all Indians sing it regardless of whether they understand it or not.  India stipulated that all schools in India have to start the day with the national anthem.

India’s national anthem was originally a patriotic song  written in Sanskritised Bengali, by Tagore, later adopted as the national anthem. Even before independence the Bengalis had sung ‘jana gana mana’ at their rallies. The Bengalis played a significant role in the nationalist struggle, more than any other ethnic group. The Tamils did not play that kind of role in Sri Lanka .

A compromise suggestion has been made, to have a single bi-lingual anthem, with verses in both Sinhala and Tamil or at least have few lines in Tamil be incorporated into our national anthem. Including a Tamil verse in the national anthem will also help chauvinistic Sinhalese to remember that there are people other than the Sinhalese living in this country, said one critic.  Tamils cannot think of themselves as Sri Lankan when the national anthem is in a language that they cannot understand,

Rajapaksa’s argument that no country sings it in two languages,  is incorrect,   said  critics. A whole bouquet of examples were given to justify singing the anthem in Tamil. Canada, has English, French and a bilingual version. The lyrics in the English and French versions differ In the bilingual version. The beginning and end is in English, middle verse is in French. Canada has an Inuit version too. It was suggested that like Canada, Sri Lanka to should have a single bi- lingual version.

The Swiss anthem is in German, Italian, French and Romansch, it has different lyrics in each of the country’s four official languages (French, German, English, and Romansh).  New Zealand  it is in English and Maori. The first verse in Maori and the second in English.  In South Africa, the national anthem of four stanzas is in five languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Swasotho, Afrikaans, and English. First stanza is in Xhosa and Zulu, two lines each, next stanza in Sesotho, third in Afrikaner, fourth in ‘English, Fiji’ has lyrics in English and Fijian which are not translations of each other.  Spain has no words at all in its national anthem. The national anthem has been played without words since 1978.

Those supporting the singing of the national anthem in Tamil have much to say. Some of it is confused. Here is an example. A national anthem is meant to unite and that doesn’t mean singing it in one language in a multi language society where diversity is recognized and accommodated in the Constitution. Accommodating the linguistic diversity of our people increases loyalty by certain a sense of belonging and strengthens unity rather than threatens it. Accommodating diversity strengthens unity.”

Some utterances are not very logical. Here is one: The anthem says ‘eka mawakage.’ If we truly believe that we are the children of one mother we must provide the opportunity for the Tamil speaking people to sing our national anthem in their mother tongue.’ This is absurd. Children of one mother would speak the same language.

Here is a collection of their other  utterances:

  • People who insist that Tamil speaking people should be forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala wish to demonstrate their superiority to the numerically weaker Tamils. They want to ram the Sinhala anthem down the throat of our Tamils speaking brethren, said one commentator.
  • What is wrong in letting them sing the national anthem in Tamil to the same tune? They would understand and sing with the same feeling.  For this land is as much theirs as ours. We must give the Tamils back their dignity.
  • The Sinhala only national anthem was designed to divide rather than unite, to widen the psychological gulf the majority and the minorities and drive home the lesson that minorities are not so welcome interlopers in a Sinhala country. The anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages must be maintained and supported. There is greater chance of inculcating a sense of Lankan patriotism in Tamil/Muslim children when they are allowed to sing the national anthem in their own language rather than parrot it in a language they barely understand..
  • We must voluntarily learn the national anthem in each other’s language, so we can all sing it together.
  • Listening to the singing of the national anthem in either or both language is indeed a moving experience. It is most moving when it is sung in our mother tongue or both languages. ( continued)

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