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How do people who call themselves Sinhalese and Tamils know they are Sinhalese and Tamils?

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By Dr. A.C. Visvalingam

In its modern form, the origins of the so-called National Question go back to the early twentieth century.

The British High Commission marked the International Day of Peace on 21 September 2011 by hosting an Art Festival in Colombo, involving over 50 school children-pic courtesy of: UK In SriLanka

As understood by the man in the street, this intractable problem was created by the claims and counter-claims made by politicians of all races, particularly the Sinhalese and the Tamils, over several decades as to how the “national cake” should be divided. The armed conflict that eventually ensued came to a decisive conclusion in May 2009.

Nevertheless, a solution acceptable to all the racial groups is no nearer.

Going back to fundamentals, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “ethnic” as “of or relating to a group of people having a common national or cultural tradition; denoting origin by birth or descent rather than by present nationality”. It defines “race” as “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics” and also as “an ethnic group”.

Regrettably, these definitions do not provide a fail-proof test procedure to determine anyone’s ethnic or racial origins. Nevertheless, the use of this terminology is unavoidable when it comes to discussing the National Question.

Dr E.W.Adhikaram, a highly regarded scholar, wrote an article in Sinhala on the irrationality of thinking on racial lines and had it published in the SILUMINA a few days before the first serious race riots broke out in 1958. In this piece, Adhikaram had tried to clear up the thinking on the issue of classifying people by race.

An English translation of his contribution, under the title “THOUGHTS – Pamphlet E1”, was published on 15 December 1983 – that is, a few months after the conflagration of July 1983. He mentions in Pamphlet E1 that “Some received it (the original article in Sinhala) with much appreciation and understanding, while some others showed deep resentment. I am glad to note that the article is now receiving increasingly better attention and appreciation”.

In a simple test, he had asked persons claiming to be Sinhalese or Tamil, how they knew whether they were one or the other. If a person claimed to be a Sinhalese (or a Tamil) by virtue of having had both parents of one race, Adhikaram asked them how their parents would have known whether they themselves were Sinhalese (or Tamil). Repeating the same question about each preceding generation, we would inevitably reach a time which was before the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples even came into existence!

Examining the matter a little more deeply, a person would have had to have 4 grandparents of a pure race to be certain of the racial purity of one’s own parents. Going back a generation further back, that person would have had to have 16 racially-pure great-grandparents if his grandparents were to be accepted as racially pure. Another generation earlier, all of one’s 64 great-great-grandparents would have had to be of unblemished race.

At this point, it would probably be safe to say that there is not a single person in Sri Lanka, however well-connected, who could provide, with proof, a list of 64 racially pure great-great-grandparents. Thus, claiming to belong to a race because one’s parents are of that race is a far from sound approach to establish that one belongs to a specific race.

Adhikaram also considered whether a person could be classified as a Sinhalese or a Tamil if he spoke Sinhala or Tamil respectively – presumably as the mother tongue. Following Adhikaram’s logic, let us now take the case of a couple who claim to be either pure Sinhalese or pure Tamil, and have emigrated. Their foreign-born children may not even be able to manage a simple sentence in Sinhala or Tamil. Can such children claim to be Sinhalese or Tamil in terms of this classification?

What about a Tamil child who was adopted in infancy by Sinhalese foster parents?

Would that child be Tamil or Sinhalese?

The above process of inquiry could be applied with equal effectiveness to the subject of caste.

Adhikaram’s position was that a right answer cannot be given to a wrong question. He inquired whether there is any special mark or feature on a person’s body that would help identify that person as a Sinhalese or a Tamil. Search as you may, you will not find such a key.

Adhikaram explained that, although a new-born child’s race or nationality is not marked on its body, it is nevertheless given a racially-distinctive name by his parents and deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality.

Accepting what was thrust upon him by his parents, he comes to believe that he belongs to that particular race and is prepared sometimes even to kill to defend his race’s interests!

What could be more blind and absurd?

At the time that Adhikaram examined the issue of race, the scientific study of evolution had not yet conclusively revealed (as it has now) that the entire human species originated in East Africa tens of thousands of years ago. It is presently accepted that the first individuals and tribes from there migrated in all directions.

Their DNA can be traced in all the races and ethnic groups on earth, including nations and races as diverse as Africans, Arabs, Jews, Europeans, Indians, Red Indians, Chinese, Maoris, Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays, Burghers and so on. However, by a process of natural selection over tens of thousands of years, some physiological characteristics changed (eg. skin colour, hair colour, average height etc) so as to cope better with the climatic conditions and other natural constraints in the new habitats where these migrants settled.

As our ancestors, the East Africans, were themselves descended from apes, what on earth is the sense in being so attached to one’s race, whatever that might be?

Arguments based on cultural heritage are even weaker. Sinhalese and Tamil have innumerable features in common because they absorbed substantial cultural and other contributions from those who came from Persia (modern Iran) and North India. In addition, Sinhala culture has hefty contributions from Tamil, Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and English sources.

Over the next few decades a whole host of extraneous cultural influences will be irresistibly absorbed by our nation, causing the differences between our indigenous cultures to become less and less distinct. No amount of atavistic screaming from public platforms will be able to halt the march of these influences. Therefore, we need to find less divisive and more productive approaches to resolving the National Question without harping on the subject of race or ethnicity.

Sri Lanka has lost huge numbers of its citizens by migration to other countries, tens of thousands maimed or killed, and thousands of billions of rupees in destruction, loss of development and disincentives to investment. In the mind of most ordinary people, the origins of these losses can be traced back to the quarrels and fighting caused by racial thinking by various groups.

Of course, there is very little that can be done about what we have lost in the past but we need to refrain from holding on to those irrational concepts about race which have prevented the evolution of an all-encompassing Sri Lankan identity.

What we have to accept first to help solve the National Question is that anyone born in Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan and the equal of every other person born in Sri Lanka, with the same rights and responsibilities. He is free to practise any religion of his choice and adopt any cultural elements that he finds congenial as long as he does not interfere with the similar rights to which every other Sri Lankan is entitled.

The State should not encourage or interfere or get involved in these matters, especially if it ends up by either showing a preference for one citizen or group of citizens over others

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  1. Race like all identities is a cultural and political construct and not a biological given. Race theory was a European colonial project which is SCIENTIFICALLY FALSE. In South Asia race theory was a British colonial invention.
    Colonial Racial “science” was a social construct to legitimize and justify colonialism and the rule by the white races over “other” or colonized people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
    The Human Genome project which maps the human gene pool has scientifically established the fact that racial classification has no scientific i.e. genetic basis. Race difference is nowhere coded in human DNA.
    THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SINHALAS AND TAMILS is the LANGUAGE that they speak and other cultural markers such as dress, food habits etc.
    The commonalities between the Sinhalas and Tamils are greater than differences. The notion of separate races in South Asia which is civilizationally one – Aryan and Dravidian is also a European colonial construct or myth based on LINGUISITIC differences between goups a la Max Muller’s work on language, and has NO BIOLOGICAL or genetic basis. All the Sinhala and Tamil racists who hate the west are actually believers in a spurious western colonial theory of human difference that the west has given up! Ha, Ha Ha!

  2. All these problems are because there are people who have a vested interest in stoking the fires of racism and religon. They think that they are under threat by the others and resort to the race or religous card. Especially our politicians and leaders must take the blame for this state of affairs.
    Wittness the silence of the President on the Dambulla incident. He has no guts to open his mouth as he will lose his clout with the clergy and sinhala extremist. Or maybe he is one of them. Same problem with implementing 13 or LLRC. Nations have come up through enlightened leadership by people like Nehru, Lee Kwan Yu and Mahathir not by this type of shaky characters.

  3. If there no difference between sinhalese and Tamils, Life will be boring. No conflicts, no debates, no discussions in forums. can’t imagine it.

  4. Language has no Genetical connections. It is a communication tool to contact with another Human. The foolishness of Sinhalese and Tamils is the acceptance of the foolish colonial theories.

    Preaching peace is an eassy work but bringing peace in “divasated” people is not easy.

    The language based RACE always get changed. In the West Sinhalese and Tamils forget their Language very fast now. In 50 years time, they will be identified as East Indians, Guyanese or Carrebean.

  5. ////As our ancestors, the East Africans, were themselves descended from apes///

    But still we have not forgotten the monkey business.

  6. The difference in being sinhalese and tamil is not with physical features nor marks on the body but in the mind and habits.

    These would come as cultural and language related.
    Most of these differences are beatiful and unique and they add colour to the lives of everyone. Songs, Dance are some of them.

    The underlying problem is based on blaming others for one own downfall.
    example a sinhalese in a mixed class would blame the tamil teacher in charge for getting marks lower than a tamil boy, or a tamil would blame the system if he is not chosen for a job and a sinhalese would be if the interviewing person was sinhalese.

    This same notion goes for police, and land issues.
    Some Tamils will always blame the sinhalese majority for their setbacks and vice versa.

    Politicians WILL expliot this for their own ends.

    Strangly both communities when out of Sri Lanka behave in a more decent manner as both communities are minority, darker skinned and live with a underdog mentality.

    Some of course completely intergrate with the majority community shed their own inhibitions and become westernised much to the amusement of the others. But they are the most sucessful.

    Interseting article in these times.

    Race — its all in the mind.

  7. Joseph,

    If your ‘world’ limited only to conflicts, debates, discussions and forums please speak
    for yourself, hurry up and stay put in that world.

    Millions of people, including me, have found this world is so big, fascinating, diverse and very
    interesting to occupy ourselves in subjects from Arts to Zoology.

    Poor Joseph.

  8. What we have to accept first to help solve the National Question is that anyone born in Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan and the equal of every other person born in Sri Lanka, with the same rights and responsibilities.

    Yes agree.

    Number 2. bring back 17th amendment and get rid of politicisation of public services.

    number 3. Have a national policy based on national needs and sustainability. Not dance to tune of donor agencies.

  9. The solution is to ban Sinhala and Tamil and enforce English only policy overnight. Then we all become Asian English but will not be able to kill the British English or the American English since they are too far away!We can also quit spending on our bloated military and our economy will bounce back. The only down side would be we would have to listen to speeches made by Weerawansa and Mervyn in English until they die naturally.

  10. M.Shivanathan says:

    “But still we have not forgotten the monkey business”.

    Because in Sri Lanka monkies grew out of Lankies.

  11. This is a timely reminder to the Diaspora and its new appendage, the TNA to allow the Tamil inhabitants to live in peace and harmony with other ethnics as one Nation.

    And the inhabitants have no need or compelling to absorb the extraneous cultural differnces that the writer in on about,,unlike the Diasporians who are already doing it in their new “homelands”.

    Srilanka is the only country in the world. where one can find two different religious places of worship housed in the same building.

    Try to build something like that in the West.

    Yet Sinhalese are the baddies in the eyes of not only the Diaspora but their allies every where.

  12. Doctor, Are you trying to teach the Sinhalese and try to change their mindset. Don’t you know the very common proverb used in Tamil…” Trying to teach religion to Satan”. Most of the people living in Kaluthara district were once upon a time Tamils. From their names you can easily identify that. Even the name Adikaram (power) is a Tamil name. Many tamil catholics have this name. When the Portugese rulers sold protugese name for protugese money many Sinhalese Bhuddist bought those names and adepted as surnames but never changed their religion. Mr.Fonseka is a Bhuddist with Portugese name. Arsakularatna(m)(Gem of the kings’ cast) is s Sinhalese Cathalic from Kaluthara with Tamil name. Thennakon(king of south),Nanayakara(n)( Honest man), Veerakon (Brave king) were Tamils never converted into Catholics during Portugese rule but later became Sinhalese Bhuddists. While the Tamils got married to Muslim merchants still live as Tamils in large numbers in Kaluthara districts but the Tamil hindus either became Catholics or Bhuddists lost their language. That is why there are still hundreds of Tamil names the Sinhalese still have as their surnames. In the North and East not only the Tamil Hindus didn’t buy the names even much of the Tamil Catholics did’t buy those names.

  13. Humans seem to be quite tribal in nature. Segregating themselves by all sorts of factors such as race, religion, language, skin colour and football clubs – killing and discriminating against those not belonging to the same tribe and feeling kinship towards those with common factors.

    I think all we can try to do is to reduce the magnitude of the divisions, perhaps by finding kinship factors across divisory lines. Of course to find common kinship factors we need to be able to communicate with each other. Sri Lanka needs a single national language that is the default across all levels of the government, judiciary and every day life. Given that learning a language is a huge investment and commitment, the choice of national language surely must be one that generates the maximum return on investment. While Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic may be useful languages for the future, English is our obvious choice given the languages preeminence in the sciences, internet and bullying Western powers.

    While many Sri Lankans will want to exclusively cling to their ethnic languages, looking down upon English speaking Sri Lankans as sell-outs and wannabe-whities, I don’t think they are capable of making a utility maximising decision for the nation.

  14. Kalu Albert says:

    “Srilanka is the only country in the world. where one can find two different religious places of worship housed in the same building.”

    Sri Lanka is the country where the state destroys mosques, temples and churches and build Buddhist Pansala’s where the land is under Military occupation.

    You say:

    “Yet Sinhalese are the baddies in the eyes of not only the Diaspora but their allies every where.”

    No Sinhalese are not the baddies but are simply stupid. Sinhala/Buddhist/Aryans are the baddies.

  15. Senathi:
    In Jaffna the Portugeuse names were vanished during the Dutch Rule. Dutch banned the Catholic religion. The Portugeuse reports mention the whole Jaffna became Catholic. After the arrival of Dutch, many Catholic Churches were destroyed or changed as DUTCH Reformed Churches.

    During the Dutch rule not only the Tamil population the Sinhalese, Negro populations too changed their names.

    After the agreement with POPE and Queen Victoria, the Catholic Church was allowed to practice and propagate their religion. Then only many Pereras, Silvas and Fernandos re-appeared among Sinhalese.

    Jaffna was heavily influenced by the Protestant Church and the people who did not change to old Portugeuse names.

    We can see many Tamil/Malayala names among Sinhalese. That is true. Specially in the North Western province, many place names are still Tamil/Malayalam.

    Sinhalization of the NW province was made faster after the switching of Sinhala medium in the schools in the province by the Bishop Edmond Peris of Chilaw in 1933. Majority of the schools became Sinhala medium and the generations of people too became Sinhala.

    The old land deeds are still in Tamil language. I saw this truth in the land Registries of Chilaw, Puttalam and Negombo.

  16. This Sinhala/Tamil divide is yet visible…….

    Reading through the feed backs, dark streaks are portrayed within the silver linnings.
    From where does it come from ? Overseas diaspora ????????????

    Other than the Diaspora, the TNA & the extreme sinhalayas, there is no time for others to think about this divide.

    If so, then Why do we not call ourselves Tamils & Sinhalese as people who need to bridge are creating the divide.


  17. The question is not a question if the writer understood the concepts “race” and “ethnicity” properly and gave due weights/emphasis to the latter one as the way the “race” was emphasized, described and explained and “ethnicity” was used in the proper context where the “race” was misplaced.

    “Race” is a concept based on biological factors and “ethnicity” is based on culture. Sinhalese are a mixed race possibly made up of Pre-Vijaya natives, North Indian migrants and South Indian migrants. They all assimilated to form ethnic group called Sinhalese. All the people who came from outside both as invaders and peaceful migrants until the Aryachakravarhi’s invation of Jaffna peninsula were so assimilated to form Sinhalese. This evident from the non availability of a different Tamil civilisation in Sri Lanka until the last stage of the 13th century. All the Tamils migrated to the Island assimilated and became Sinhalese before the end of the 13th century.

    Sri Lankan Tamils also is an ethnic group rather than a race, that is why they uniquely identified from Tamils in North India.

    Really if the writer is in asking the question in right context considering both the contexts their due weights, the answer is very simple. It is by their different cultures and Tamil ethnic group (some of them) has been here for about seven hundred years and Sinhalese have been in here about 2000 years.

    Easiest way to understand one is Tamil or Sinhalese is mainly by thir language and religion.

    Denying reality does not help solving any problem, though it might seems attractive.


  18. By custems and social behaviour patterns make tamils and sinhalees defferenciate.


  19. Senathi,
    What buying? the names were given free when baptized.
    It is left to us to use what ever name, like free to use cart or car.
    It was a honour for the Portugese when our kings converted, many did; Don John Vimala-Darmasurya, Don Juan Darmapala, Mahabendige Dona Catherina Kusunadevi, Don Philippe Yamasinghe Bandar (Pandaram), etc…
    Similarly Tamil queens were Dona Clara De Silva, etc….

    The names of Sigiri graffiti are now near extinct, in place you have nayke, kara, koon, tunga, etc…as new Sinhala names of South Indian (often Tamil) origin.
    Not just Kalutara, but central hills, our last 4 kings TN Tamils….
    Vijaya married and bought settlements from TN, Tamils have come here before with Raavana, Rama, but not only Tamils…
    Even the Nagas were setteled on both sides of the Palk strait; Nagadeepa & Nagapatinam….
    In adition to Tamil/Sanskrit names Kalutara/Panadura subkings/adidars (from their anscestoral seat/land known as Naloruwa) shared the same clan name as other brave mariners/navigators of Kalinga, Andra and even the legendary first king of the Maldives…aparently our sister language…inhabited by us….

    The Galle Trilingual inscription left by the legendary Chinese navigator Zeng He about his equal homage to Buddist, Hindu and Islamic sites in SL is in Arabic, Tamil & Chinese
    Even the Kandyan convension/treaty is signed primarily in Tamil (including Chandrika’s ancestor Ratwate)…
    Many of Parakrama-bahu’s inscriptions in Tamil (Welakara troop), himself mixed and married Tamil (Leelavathi Naaichchi/Naina/Naaga-ancestory)
    As you say, we have Nainamadama in NW province/aluth Kuru-rata, other side of Palk strait there is Kuru-mandala
    Vijayanagar subordinates, the Nyakes became the last surviving royal clan of S India and SL

    However there is pre Aryan settlements and burial urns, etc denoting similar culture of seafearers along the two coasts of the neighbouring countries, also fragments of Ramayana remain, ideologically more in India
    Tamils have had temporary kingdoms before remember Elara (1st century BC), Sena Gutika (3rd century BC) and Tamil monarchs of post 13th century Sinhala people (Alakeswara, Buvanekabahu VI/Xemba Perumal/Sapumal kumaraya, last 4 kings and countless mixed ethnic kings). Then you get passonate Hindu Rajasinghe I destrying Buddist temples (though this is our first Raajsingha, many in S Indian before), and flurishing S Indian Buddist areas; Amaravati (Andra) was a working monastry about 400 yrs ago)
    Mahavansa says we all became Sinhala, from Kamboja, Damela (& Naga), but then again it says Vijaya hails from bestiality (lion+woman) and oppressed the Yakshas.

    Taking Kalu Albert’s advice then build a mosque cum temple in Dambula.

    If we Lankans are brave we will take DNA tests!

  20. w.m.k.samarasekara says:

    “By custems and social behaviour patterns make tamils and sinhalees defferenciate”

    Could you show me the differences between Stupid Tamils and stupid Sinhalese culturally or otherwise.

    Both are caste conscious stupid people.
    Both are idolaters.
    Both grab land
    Both are corrupt
    Both are greedy
    Both parochial bigots
    Both are willing to use senseless violence
    Both hate Muslims
    Both came from India by Kallathony.
    Both generally follow Indian customs and cinema
    Both are cricket mad
    Both insist their daughters in law to be virgin before their marriage.
    Both eat rice and curry and enjoy pongal/kiri buth.
    Both want the other to suffer
    Both think they are superior to cleverer than Indians
    Both are self serving little islanders.
    Both are self destructive stupid people.

    Where are the differences?

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