Posted on September 12th, 2023


Revised 12.9.23

The place names of the north and east indicate that the north and east were Sinhala before they became Tamil. The incoming Tamils, arriving from Tamilnadu, simply tamilised the existing Sinhala place names instead of inventing new names.

In 1886, the irrigation engineer, Henry Parker, presented a series of Sessional papers to the Legislative Council, on the subject of irrigation in the Northern Province. He commented, inter alia, on the available historical information relating to the tanks he was inspecting.

Parker found the following substitution of Tamil names for Sinhala names. Maha Iranpaikkulam was originally Rambewetiya. Iluppaikkadavai was originally Sallariya. Maha Kachchatkodi tank was originally Tittaveli. Kuruntur Malai was Piyangala. Kuruntankulam was Kurunegama ( SP 8 of 1886 p 4-5. S.P. 46 of 1886 p 11)

 In 1896, J. P. Lewis wrote on the ‘Place names in the Vanni”. He pointed out that many of the Tamil names in the Vanni have their exact equivalents in the names of the Sinhalese villages in these provinces. Former Sinhalese inhabitants were driven from the villages to Southern districts he said. The invaders then gave these names to the places.

 The Vanni was colonised by the Tamils only recently and therefore the Tamil place names were new, said Lewis in 1896. Some place names are Tamilised versions of the original Sinhala names. For example, Galkandamadu got Tamilised into Kallukondamadu. That is because in Tamil the letter ‘k’ is used for ‘ga’ and ‘ha’ as well. Lewis also pointed out that Mandukoddai was Mandukanda. And Okande was in Tamil Uhande. (Journal Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch. Vol 12(42) 1891 p lll. and vol. 23 (67) 1914.)

Lewis found heaps of ‘puliyankulams’ in the Vanni. ‘Kulam’ is ‘tank’ in Tamil. The original name of one such Puliyankulam was Siyambalagaswewa. Vilenkulam was earlier Diwulwewa. Lewis pointed out that the Sinhalese tended to name places after trees, plants or incidents relating to the place (Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, Vol 14 (47) 1896. p 204, 207, 219, 220)

In 1916, B. Horsburgh wrote on “Sinhalese place names in the Jaffna Peninsula”. He suggested that at least thirty of the place names in Jaffna were Sinhala in origin. His argument was a simple one. He pointed out that Tamil place names which ended in ‘kam’ ‘pai’ ‘vil’ ‘kalappu’ ‘vattei’ ‘palai’ ‘pai’ were meaningless in Tamil. ‘Vil’ is ‘bow in Tamil. “Pai’ is ‘net’ or ‘sail’. However the names made sense when they were interpreted in Sinhala. “Valikamam’ had no meaning in Tamil. But it made sense as the Tamilicised version of “Weligama’. Thus Chunnakam was Hunugama, Kokkuvil was Kokavila, Uduvil as Uduvila, Tanankalapu was Tanankalapuwa, Saravattei was Sarawatte, and Manipai was Mampe. (Ceylon Antiquary and literary Register. Vol 2(1) 1916, p 55,56

Rev S. Gnanaprakasar, and S. W. Coomaraswamy wrote in to the  CALR journal, agreeing heartily with Horsburgh’s views and adding some more examples to support Horsburgh. Coomaraswamy suggested that Manipai was not “mampe’ but “Mampaya’ and that Sandiruppay was probably Sandurupaya. S. Sabaratnam partially agreed. J. P. Lewis supplied examples from Mannar and Mullaitivu, of Tamilised Sinhala place names. (CALR. Vol 2, 1916 p 167-174. and vol 3 (10) 1917 p 45,46. and vol 3 (13) 1918 p 159

 In 1921, S. O. Canagaratnam wrote a “Monograph on the Batticaloa District of the Eastern Province of Ceylon”. He said that some place names in Batticaloa were Tamilised versions of Sinhala names. Potivillu was Bodhivila, Sagamam was Chagama, Katirgam was Kadilagama, Irakamam was Ratgama, Vellai Arasu Nadu was Wellassa. (p 31, 34)

Researchers were interested in finding out the original name of the Jaffna Peninsula. Horsburgh, doing some guessing favoured “Yapane’ saying that “Yapa’ was a good old Sinhala word and ‘ne’ was used as an ending as in Habarane’.”Yalpanam’ he thought was a later elaboration.

 Paul. E Pieris, in his landmark article on the excavations at Kantarodai, Jaffna, declared that the original Sinhala name for Jaffna peninsula was ‘Nagadipa’. (Journal Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch. Vol 26(70) 1917.)

In 1968, C. E. Godakumbure confirmed  Pieris’ view.. The ancient name for Jaffna peninsula was Nagadipa, he said. Chunnakam, Godakumbure thought need not be Hunugama. It could also be Sulanagama from the Pali word Cullanagama. Kantarodai was originally known as Kadurugoda. (Journal Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch. Vol 12, n.s. 1968. p  67-68

in 1959, there appeared C. W. Nicholas’ ‘Historical topography of ancient and medieval Ceylon’ in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, Vol 6 n.s. 1959. Nicholas said that Kokkilai in Vavuniya was originally Kokela. Eravur was Erahulu. Malvattai, which lies between Ampara and Sammanturai, was originally Malavaththu. Kandiyankuttu. 6 miles west of Uhana was originally Mahakandiyawawa. Kaddukulam Pattu, in the Trincomalee district, was originally Kavudavulu. Kantalai was originally Gantalawa. (p 46, 45, 25 29, 30, 87)

 Once the basic principle of Tamilisation of place names is grasped, it is possible for us to  make our own interpretations. ‘Nilaveli’ would have been ‘Nilwella’ and ‘Oluvil’ would have been ‘Oluvila’.J.W.Bennet writing in 1843 refers to Nilaveli as Nilvelle. [1]  

The Sinhala name for Trincomalee was Gokanna and  the harbour  was known Gokannatiththa. K.N.O. Dharmadasa stated that  in the Tamil word, Tirukonamalai,  ‘tiru’ means sacred ‘kona’ comes from Gokanna and  ‘malai’ is hill.[2]  

The North and east ,especially the East is  today a jumble of Sinhala and Tamil place names. This is clearly visible in  Survey Department maps of the two provinces.

A cadastral survey of certain parts of Sri Lanka commenced in 1857, and Batticaloa Province was done in 1860. It has been suggested that surveyors and labourers used for this survey were Tamil, and that the Tamil names were entered because those were the names they knew. There was also a place named “Linemalai’ in the Eastern Province, so named because an old survey line ran by it. (C. W. Nicholas p 22)

Sessional paper 17 of 1931, on the  Railway Department, has a map attached to it. In this map too the Eastern Provinces is a jumble of Sinhala and Tamil names. All the tanks have Sinhala names such as Nikawewa, Migaswewa. So do the rivers, such as Yan Oya, Ma Oya. But the coast is fully Tamil when it comes to  names.

In this 1931 map, In the east there was  Indulpitiyawa near Kuchcheveli. Yalpotta next to Pottuvil. Galamitiyawewa has Tampalakaamam just below.  Ambalam Oya flows into Periya Kalapu.  In the north there was Padawiya-Ma Oya -Kiul Oya-Deiyannekanda- Moragoda -Mora Oya-Makunu Oya- Mee Oya leading to Kokkilai Lagoon and Pulmoddai. These names are still in use.

Ven. Ellawela Medhananda explored the north and east between 2003 and 2013, looking  at the   Buddhist  ruins there.  While    researching these areas, he came across   the original Sinhala names in those places.[3]

 He found that  In  ancient  times, in Trincomalee    district, Kuchchaveli maha vihara was Samudradevi vihara.   Verugal was originally Veheragala.  Kottiyar pattu was Kotthasara.  Periyakulam was Manamatta wewa.  

Batticaloa area  had  villages called  Kasaba nagara,  Giritisa gama, Karaginitisa gama, Vilagama  and  Malu gama. In Ampara district, a gama donated to an aramaya become ‘aramagam’ which became ‘Arugam’.  Rugam is the Tamilisation of this, said Medhananda .   

 A long list of place names of the north and east of Sri Lanka which have been changed from Sinhala to Tamil can be found at www.geocities.com/place.names . Analysts observed that some place names are historically documented, Such as Mantota for Mantai, Gokanna for Trincomalee.

 In others the derivation is clear. Gantale for Kantalai. Kanniyai for Kanniyava. Kokavil for Kokavila.  Mavil oya for mavilaru.Navadantalvu for Navadantalava. Nedunkerni, for Nedunkuruna. Nilaveli for Nilvella.  Oluvil for Oluvila.Omanda for Omantai. Pottuvil for Pothuvila. Sammanthurai for Samanthota.  Sompura for Sampur.Valikamam for Valukagama.

In some cases the Tamil name differed from the Sinhala name. Ranpariththa became  Pomparippu.  Siyambalaveva became Puliyankulam.( continued)

[1] J.W Bennett  Ceylon and its capabilities. 1843. P 239,

[2] KNO Dharmadasa. Place name and ethnic interest the case of Tirukonmalai SLJ Humnaites. 2(2) 1976. P114

[3] Ellawela Medhananda. Pacina passsa, uttara passa, nagenahira palata  ha  uturu palate Sinhala bauddha urumaya. 2003 5  imp 2013

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