original inhabitants of Sri Lanka

L.S.Cousins L.S.Cousins at NESSIE.MCC.AC.UK
Sun May 2 06:30:47 UTC 1999

This is perhaps more appropriate as a topic for Indology; so I have given
it a new name before our esteemed moderator intervenes in a discussion that
threatens to overstep the limits :-)

Venkatraman Iyer <venkatraman_iyer at HOTMAIL.COM> writes:

>Across the Palk Straits, the distance is a mere 18 miles. Greek
>geographers call Ceylon as Tambapanni. Tamraparni is in South
>Tamil Nadu. No distinction between India and Ceylon except the
>recent centuries. Some  earliest South East Asian inscriptions bear
>a Tamil stamp, Sri Mara (cf. J. Filliozat). Tamils were in Sri Lanka
>as long as they lived in India.

I think this is an interesting question and much more difficult than you
imply in this brief statement.

>There, there are earliest Tamil
>Brahmi  inscriptions with distinct marks for Tamil names, the 'n2'
>endings, the letter 'zha' and so on and proto-sinhala inscriptions
>mention the presence of Tamils.

Taking the earliest period first i.e. before El.aara ruled in all or part
of the island.

It seems to me that we don't know if Tamil speakers lived on the island
before this time or not. When speakers of a language from North India came
to the island and established themselves there (in whatever way - there are
several possibilities), we simply don't know who was there before.

Similarly, if it is the case (it is far from certain) that Dravidian
speakers too originally came from the north,  then we don't know:
1. what languages were spoken either in the Tamil country or on the island;
2. whether or not Dravidian speakers occupied the island.

But there is something we can, I think, be quite certain of. It is best
explained by a simple thought experiment:

Supposing we could assemble all the ancestors of the 'Sinhalese' and all
the ancestors of the 'Tamils' (from say the seventh century B.C.) and
divide them into three groups - those who are ancestors of 'Tamils', those
who are ancestors of 'Sinhalese' and those who are ancestors of both. Then
we would find that 90% would fall into the third grouping. In other words
they are essentially genetically identical groups.

Why do I say this. For many reasons. Some examples:
1. the vast majority would be descendants of the autochthonous inhabitants
i.e. those from before  arrival (from wherever) of various waves of
newcomers (there were doubtless many before either Dravidians or Prakrit
2. there was constant interchange between the two areas e.g. many of the
queens in the royal establishments of both areas were wives exchanged
between kings on the island and those in the Tamil country.
and so on

After the time of E.laara and probably before there were almost certainly
trading families established on the island (and probably vice versa on the
mainland). From that time on  there were certainly always Tamils living on
the island, although we have no idea as to their numbers. It is unclear
whether or not they occupied any particular areas. Later. Tamil mercenaries
also became common and important on the island. After the ninth century and
onwards,  South Indian kings were often successful in establishing
themselves in the north of the island; the numbers of Tamil speakers must
have increased considerably.

The natural assumption is that it is only at this time that Tamil speakers
became the majority in certain northern areas, but it is far from certain.

>A portion of the sangam poetry were penned by Tamils from Lanka.
>Eg., Izhattup Puutam TEvanAr. Among the Tevaram corpus available
>to us (many were lost in the last 1300 years), two decads are available on
>Kediicaram and TirukONamalai. It is a tragic loss
>that Tamil religions, both Saivism and Vaishnavism, destroyed
>many, many Buddhist works. Luckily, Manimekalai and few poems
>in Veerachoziyam survived. Kovai ciRRilakkiyam-s routinely talk
>of going to Lanka. Izham means gold, toddy. Tamil literature
>exists from 11th century onwards in Sri Lanka.

I am very sceptical as to the theory that 'Tamil religions' destroyed
Buddhist works. I suspect it is the Portuguese we should blame for that.
That, and the loss of patronage through the partial destruction of native
kingship in the south by Muslim invaders. Palmleaf manuscripts need
relativel;y frequent recopying.

Also, I suspect that much of the work of Tamil Buddhists was written in
Sanskrit, at least in later times. Theravaadin Sanskrit works were probably
produced more often in the Tamil country than in Ceylon. Some of this
survives, either directly or in renderings into Pali.

Lance Cousins


Email: L.S.Cousins at nessie.mcc.ac.uk

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