Know thy neighbour

A tongue-in-cheek primer to Sri Lankan history


TR jawahar | April 4, 2013

So, how will the youth of Tamil Nadu spend the unexpected holiday gifted to them by politics thanks to the protests on the Sri Lankan issue? Though cinema and cricket are obvious choices, why don’t they also enlighten themselves on Ceylon? After all, some efforts to know thy neighbour is certainly warranted, since the student protest, though having its locus here, has its focus there. Here are some tid-bits gathered from secondary sources; I request everyone to delve deep on their own too.

Now, cut to pre-history, the period not authenticated in writing. It is agreed (do we have a choice?) that nature separated Ceylon from south India some 7,000 (give or take a 1,000) years ago. That makes the original inhabitants of the island the same stock as south Indians, commonly referred to as ‘Dravidian’. The portion of other ethnic groups from north India or elsewhere is negligent if not nil. When recorded history takes over around 400 BC, the kingdom of Anuradhapura was thriving in central Ceylon. Ditto with several kingdoms in the north, northwest and east, which means all these must have existed for long to reach that level of civilisation.

Of the Dravidian tongues, Tamil was predominant in all these places. There is also enough archaeological evidence littered across Lanka testifying to the sway of Saivism since only Shiva knows when. So it is a sound surmise that Shaivism and Sangatamil were the original religious and linguistic bedrock of the entire Island. Ceylon was for long a wholesome civilisation united under a homogenous religion and lingo, derived from the Tamil mainland. Period.

When Ashoka’s son landed in A’pura around 250 BC, he converted the reigning king from Shaivism to Buddhism, and that religion stayed put there.

The rest of Ceylon, however, remained steadfast with Shaivism. Geography also went in sync with the religious divide: The central, south and southwest were Buddhist while the north, northwest and east were Shaivite. The decay of A’pura and the takeover of its areas by thick forests pushed the Buddhist kingdoms south, thus physically alienating the two religious communities. The advent of Sinhala language, which is an amalgam of the Buddhist Pali, north Indian Prakrit, some Tamil etc, cemented the divide on linguistic lines too.

The point is, it was actually the Buddhist-Sinhala populace that broke away from what was wholly a Hindu-Tamil land and eventually became the oppressive majority of now. This travesty was facilitated by several tragic developments, wrought by outsiders as well as Tamils themselves, all through history leading to the present plight of the Tamil people. First, the Buddhists were good at recording their history systematically while the Hindus as usual lost out on this count. For instance, the ‘Mahavamsa’, a Pali chronicle and the cornerstone of Buddhist chauvinism, depicts the history of Ceylon, and Anuradhapura particularly, exclusively in the Buddhist-Sinhalese context, ignoring or belittling the earlier and contemporary Tamil history.

So, when modern historians spawned by 18th century colonialism and drunk on evidence-based intellectualism landed in Lanka, they had ‘documented’ proof of Buddhist-Sinhalese history, but the Tamils had little more than ‘unverifiable myths and tales’ on offer as their ancient history. While this lapse has marginally been addressed by modern SL Tamil scholars, the Sinhalese had already succeeded with their claims as the premier ethnic group with a greater antiquity. Even the most ardent of Tamil champions have now taken the Sinhaleses’ ‘superior’ status as a given.

The Tamils did have a good run from 6th century AD to the 16th. The three hundred and fifty years of Chola rule (that replaced the Pallavas) from 9th century to the 12th particularly were ones of immense all round glory. And this was followed by another three centuries of the Jaffna kingdom and during this entire stretch of history, Shaivism and Tamil touched their zenith, aided by interaction with Tamil Nadu. Of course, Buddhist-Shaivism conflict in TN also had its echoes there. But the conquest of Ceylon’s Tamil regions by the Portuguese in the 16th century ended this high. A new creed, Catholic Christianity, riding on colonial greed, made its fatal foray into this prosperous and pious land. And with that started the slow and painful annihilation of the Sri Lankan Tamil race, its culture, its religion and everything else that make a people a nation.

The Portuguese zealots demolished Shaivite temples, destroyed invaluable artefacts and literature, forcibly converted scores of locals and obliterated whatever cultural and religious evidence they could lay their hands on, all in the name of some true faith. They plundered the produce, hijacked trade and politically subjugated the Tamil populace through insidious means. After about 150 years of this torment, came the Protestant Dutch to scavenge on what was left. To quote a Western historian: ‘If the Portuguese sucked the Tamils’ blood, the Dutch even ate their flesh’. And when, finally, the British took over from the Dutch in the 18th century, the Tamils were down to their raw bones. The Sinhalese Buddhists, though losing out politically to the Europeans, somehow survived these cultural assaults, retaining their ‘cultivated’ edge over Tamil culture which was actually the parent.

The Lankan tale is inexhaustible and never gets stale. And since the holidays too are open-ended at the time of going to press, the rest of history can come soon. Please stay tuned.

-- Jawahar is a senior Chennai-based journalist. This article, written on the day of the mass fast by prominent persons in Chennai against the atrocities on Sri Lankan Tamils and first appeared on



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