Sinhalese and Tamils Have Not Been Mutually Antagonistic from Earlier Times

by Vinod Moonesinghe

A persistent myth, which has helped create disharmony in Sri Lanka, is that the Sinhalese and Tamils have had a continuous history of mutual antagonism from the earliest past. In fact, ethnic enmity in Sri Lanka has modern roots, based in the divisive race politics of the British colonial power. Historically, ethnicity was not really a cause of dissension.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) adopted as their emblem the tiger, the totemic emblem of the Chola emperors, as a challenge to the ‘Sinhalese lion’ of the ‘Lion Flag’. In fact, the ‘Lion Flag’ is an adaptation of the royal standard of the Tamil Nayakkar king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe.

In the latter stages of the Kandyan kingdom, the Nayakkar royal family and much of the aristocracy were of South Indian Tamil origin – many of whom signed the Kandyan Convention in Tamil. Indeed, such was the hold of the Tamil nobility that each anti-British rebellion, right down to 1848, required a Nayakkar pretender to the throne.

The imagined ancient hostility between Sinhalese and Tamils comes from an erroneous reading of our history; in particular from taking the Pali chronicles, the Mahawamsa and the Culawamsa, out of context.

The colonialists promoted a picture of ‘Aryan’ Sinhalese at odds with ‘Dravidian’ Tamils, so that they could adopt an analogous position: ‘Aryan’ British liberating ‘Aryan’ Kandyans from ‘Dravidian’ Nayakkar domination.

However, to the dismay of the British Raj, the nascent Sinhalese Buddhist bourgeoisie turned these ‘Aryan’ arguments against the British themselves. Unfortunately, the dichotomy between Sinhalese and Tamils was exacerbated – as intended by the colonial power. In the early 20th century the Tamil elite, reacting against ‘Aryanism’, began asserting the superiority of the ‘pure’ Dravidian races over the ‘hybrid mongrel’ Sinhalese.

In this era of post-war reconciliation, we must adjust our exclusivist historiographies. Like our ancestors, we should both emphasise the similarities and enjoy the diversity. The first step could be, as the late Regi Siriwardena suggested, highlighting ‘the diverse ethnic strands that have gone into the making of our nationhood and the various elements that these ethnic groups have contributed to our culture, and indeed to our daily existence’.

Genetic studies indicate that the differences between ‘Sinhalese’ and ‘Tamils’ in Sri Lanka are minor. It should be remembered that entire castes of various origins were assimilated into both ethnic groups; there have also been extensive intermarriages between them and a large part of the ‘pre-Vijayan’ population of the island were absorbed into both.

Archaeological findings indicate that the original population was probably Veddha (Vannialaetto), with whom genetic studies show the Sinhalese have a slight affinity. At some time, there appear to have been migrations of people from India (possibly from central India). Who these people were, we do not know – although they were probably related both to the Bengalis and to south Indian peoples.

Studies on the skeletal remains in the Pomparippu urn burials, part of Sri Lanka’s megalithic Iron Age, indicate the affinity of this population to the modern Sinhalese. Similar urn burials have been found in South India.

The oldest Pali chronicles, the Dipawamsa and the Mahawamsa indicate that they were Yakkhas and Nagas. There appears to be confirmation of this in the statements of ‘Rachias’, the head of the embassy to Claudian Rome, in the Mahayanist ‘Avalokitesvara-Guna-Karandavyuha Sutra’, and in the Chinese monk Fa Hsein’s ‘Record of the Buddhistic kingdoms’.

It is possible that these ‘Nagas’ may have been related to the ‘Nagas’ who lived between the Godavari and Narmada rivers and in Avanti in Mauryan times and later. The south of the subcontinent certainly abounds in their name: Nagercoil, Nagapattinam, Nagpur and so on.

The seven-headed Naga (cobra) was associated with lakes and tanks, indicating that the Nagas may have been responsible for the hydraulic civilisation of Sri Lanka and southern India.

It has been suggested the Nagas were ‘Tamils’, which is improbable. The cobra, associated with the Nagas, is ‘Naga’ in the Indo-Aryan languages, but not in the Dravidian. In Tamil it is ‘nalla paambu’ (‘good or correct snake’) or ‘naaga pambu’ (‘Naga snake’); it is also referred to as the ‘Naga snake’ in Telugu and Kannada. This suggests that Dravidian speakers associated the cobra with the Nagas, but were not Nagas themselves.

According to ancient Tamil tradition, the Pallava dynasty had its origins in the union of a Naga princess with a Chola king. The Pallavas may have been a central Indian clan, possibly from the same area as occupied by the Nagas.

In the middle of the 1st Millennium BC, a group of people calling themselves ‘Sinhala’, arrived from North India. Both the Dipawamsa and the Mahawamsa mention that the legendary King Vijaya came from Sinhapura in the Lala country (Gujarat), tarrying at Broach (Bharukkaccha) and/or Sopara (Supparaka) on the way.

This indicates that the settlers came from Gujarat rather than from Bengal, which accords with the linguistic evidence – Sinhala and Dhivehi are closer to Gujarati and Marathi than to Bengali and Gujarat, but not Bengal, was a habitat for lions, associated with Sinhalas in legend. The Kathiawar city of Sihor has been identified with Sinhapura.

Recent genetic evidence has also suggested that Gujarat may have been the place of origin of at least a section of the Sinhalese; a small admixture of Punjabi genes accords with the chronicles’ legends of brides being brought from ‘Madda’ and from ‘beyond the Ganges’.

Variants of the Vijaya legend, which may have a historical core, were extant in the early first Millenium AD, as evidenced by the ‘Avalokitesvara-Guna-Karandavyuha Sutra’, which speaks of a prince called ‘Sinhala’, son of ‘Sinha’ coming to ‘Tamradvipa’, and that henceforth the island was known as ‘Sinhala Dvipa’. This legend was later associated with the Sindhi mariner Sinbad.

Tamradvipa is a modification of Tamraparni, the name of the island mentioned in the Emperor Asoka’s rock edicts. The name is rendered in the Dipavamsa as ‘Tambapanni’ and the Greeks used an adaptation, ‘Taprobane’.

In ancient times, the name of a people referred mainly to its elite, the ruling class which held most of the cultural capital. In Herodotus’ debate between Darius and the others about which type of state was desirable, ‘the people’ refer to the upper class. Karl Kautsky has pointed out how the Jews kept their identity only because of the preservation in exile in Babylon of their elite.

Similarly, ‘Sinhalese’ and ‘Tamil’ in the context of ancient Sri Lanka and South India must relate mainly to their upper social strata, which superimposed their own languages and cultures on the indigenous populations. When Dutugemunu waged war against Ellalan (Sinhala ‘Elara’), it was a battle between two dynasties, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, not two peoples.

The picture emerges of an indigenous population (Nagas and Yakshas), related to populations in South India and in Bengal, being overlaid by an elite stratum of Indo-Aryan speakers, who spread out from the Tambapanni area and establish cultural hegemony over the rest the island. Certainly, by the 5th century BC, there was evidence of Prakrit writing in the Brahmi script at Anuradhapura.

This viewpoint is given added plausibility by studies done on Iron Age remains at Pochampad in Andhra Pradesh which indicate that there was a continuity of populations over time, rather than abrupt demographic displacement, and a gradual merging of invading peoples with the existing populations.

The spread of Tamil would have followed a similar pattern. Tamil was a relative newcomer to the ‘Tamil homeland’, Tamilakam. Some linguistic studies have indicated that the Godavari valley was the homeland of the Dravidian speakers, but others suggest that they have migrated to this area from the North West. The split between Telugu and Tamil took place about 1000 BC, so the arrival of Tamil-speakers in Tamilakam was probably later than this.

The Chola, Pandya and Satiyaputra dynasties are mentioned in the Asokan rock edicts from the third century BC. About this time began Sangam literature, associated mainly with the Pandyan capital Madurai.

However, Indologist Aska Parpola has suggested that the Pandyas were an Indo-Aryan dynasty ruling over a Dravidian population. Interestingly, 2nd century BC Brahmi script inscriptions at Kodumanal, near Coimbatore, have revealed Indo-Aryan names, such as Sumanan, Tissam, and Visaki, along with rather more Tamil-sounding ones.

The discovery of Brahmi characters in the Tamil language, incised on pottery in Adichanallur, near Tirunelveli, may push the boundary back a couple of centuries. It is significant that the discovery has been made directly across the Gulf of Mannar from Anuradhapura, the site of the contemporary Brahmi script pottery, suggesting a common origin.

The earliest evidence we have of Tamil-speakers in Sri Lanka comes from the Mahavamsa, which mentions the ‘Damila’ sons of a horse-shipper, Sena and Guttika about the 2nd century BC. It also mentions, shortly after this, that Elara was a ‘Damila’ nobleman who came from the Chola country.

In terms of religion, there was no clear-cut differentiation into ‘Sinhalese Buddhists’ and ‘Tamil Hindus’. Jainism and Ajivakism, as well as Buddhism, flourished in Sri Lanka. The Mahawamsa says that Pandukabhaya built dwellings for Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains (‘Niganthas’). Vattagamani Abhaya built the Abhayagiri Buddhist monastery on the site of Pandukabhaya’s Jain Tittharama, in revenge for the taunts of a Nigantha called Giri.

Jainism and Buddhism also had a strong hold among contemporary Tamils. The term ‘Sangam’ in the description of classical Tamil literature refers to the Jain Sangha. ‘Aimperumkappiyam’, the five great epics of ancient Tamil literature are: ‘Silappatikaram’, a neutral work by a Jain author, Ilango Adigal; the Buddhist ‘Manimekalai’ and ‘Kundalakesi’; and the Jain ‘Civaka Cintamani’ and ‘Valayapathi’.

The city of Kaveripattinam (modern Puhar), appears to have been central to Buddhism in Tamilakam. Significantly, it is considered to be the birthplace of the deities Pattini and Devol. The Manimekalai says it had seven Buddhist monasteries, built by ‘Indra’ (possibly the Arhant Mahinda).

It is possible that Mahinda and Aritta, a relative of the Sinhala king Devanampiya Tissa, proselytised Tamilakam. Near Madurai is the hill of Arittapatti, originally a Buddhist site, now holy to Siva.

In the 5th century AD a celebrated Tamil monk, Ven Buddhadatta studied at the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He later composed Buddhist works in Tamilakam, at Kaveripattinam, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram. He was one of many learned Tamil Buddhist monks, of whom the names of at least thirty have come down to us.

The Buddhism practised in Tamilakamam (where it seems to have existed until the 13th century) was liberal and open-minded, allowing much speculation considered heretical by the orthodox Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. Thus Mahayanism and Tantrism flourished. Aspects of the southern Bhakti belief also began to intrude into Buddhism. Evidently, Tamilakam was the origin of Bodhisattva worship.

There was a legend that Agastya, the father of Tamil, learnt the language from the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the god of the Potiyil hill to which he had withdrawn. According to the Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka, Potiyil is derived from ‘Bodhi-il’ (‘Buddhist place’) and is the same as Mahayanist Potalaka (‘Buddha Loka). He identified it with the Pothigai hills (also known as Agastiyar Malai) near Tirunelveli.

One is tempted to draw a connection between ‘Pothigai’ or ‘Potiyil’ with the Potgul Vehera in Polonnaruwa. Interestingly, former Archaeological Commissioner, Raja de Silva has identified the statue at the Potgul Vehera, commonly assumed to be Parakramabahu, as Agastya. Could this have been a Mahayanist institution, associated with Avalokitesvara?

Avalokitesvara had many of the attributes of the pre-Brahmanical deity Siva (also known as Isvara), including the possession of two gender aspects – the female ‘Shakti’ being Tara. It is hence not surprising that many south Indian Buddhist places of worship subsequently became Siva temples.

This may be a clue to the Mahavamsa’s attitude to Tamils. Historians have tended to focus on the fact that the chronicle was written at the time of Dhatusena, who had just completed a struggle against several Tamil kings, which they consider the reason for this antipathy.

However, the Mahawamsa was primarily an ecclesiastical document of the Mahavihara, seeing the world through orthodox Theravada Buddhist eyes. Its concern with worldly activities was mainly limited to maintaining royal patronage. The primary threat to that patronage came from what it saw as heresies.

The Mahawamsa’s treatment of Elara is moderate; it not only praises the justice of his rule, thus making him the prototype ‘good Soli king’ of later folk lore. It says he ‘freed himself from the guilt of walking in the path of evil… though he had not put aside false beliefs’. Nor does it speak badly of the ‘Seven Damilas’ who overthrew Vattagamani Abhaya; it merely mentions that, on being asked whether Buddhism would prosper under the former or the latter, the Sangha took the King’s side.

On the other hand, its treatment of Sanghamitta, ‘a bhikkhu from the Cola people who was versed in the teachings concerning the exorcism of spirits, and so forth’, is clearly antagonistic. This ‘lawless’ bhikkhu (apparently of the Dharmmaruci sect) was embittered against the Mahavihara, it says, and ingratiated himself with the future king Mahasena.

Under the last-named, Theravada was persecuted and the Dhammaruci sect was triumphant. Under Dhatusena and his sons too, that is, in the period the Mahawamsa was written, Theravada Buddhism was embattled. Archaeological evidence indicates that Sigiriya, to which Dhatusena’s son Kasyapa retreated, was a Mahayanist monastery complex.

So the Mahavihara was threatened not by Tamil monarchs or armies, but by Buddhist schismatics influenced by Tamil priests from Tamilakam. Hence, what we read in the chronicles is not antagonism towards Tamil people, but antipathy to ‘heresies’ carried hither by Tamil Buddhist prelates.